U.S. green groups see need to nudge Obama's 'opening bid' on carbon cuts

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 2, 2014 7:38pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In large part, the wide-ranging reaction to President Barack Obama's signature effort to cut power plant carbon emissions could have been written months in advance.

Key Republicans and many industrial groups decried it as a job-killing war on coal that would drive up power prices; environmentalists and many Democrats hailed it as a landmark measure making good on Obama's pledge to tackle climate change.

Behind the bombast, however, more measured voices found a proposal that was not as severe as critics had feared nor as ambitious as proponents had hoped for. Basing the average 30 percent reduction on the year 2005 - near a high point for such emissions, before the economic recession reduced power use and the rise of shale gas dramatically curbed coal plant output - means much of that reduction has already occurred.

For both sides of the debate, Monday's sweeping proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is only the starting point of a months-long effort to chip away, hone or modify the details of a 645-page plan that may remake the nation's power sector.

“This is an excellent opening bid,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group that submitted a plan to help guide the agency as it wrote the rules.

Now the real work will begin behind the scenes during a 120-day-long public comment period, as green groups seek more ambitious elements to make the rules even tougher while opponents seek vulnerable areas to challenge in courts.

For example, Schneider said he expects some environmental groups and states to comment on how the agency defined the “best system of emission reduction” – a group of available technologies identified by the EPA that states can use to ratchet down their emissions, and that help determine the stringency of each states goals.

A NEW ENGAGEMENT

The long-awaited proposal was announced last June when President Barack Obama announced a new strategy to address climate change. Monday's announcement was preceded by an unprecedented, nationwide, months-long outreach effort to gather feedback and address criticism well in advance.

That did little to stem either the tide of outrage or the outpouring of support that greeted Monday's announcement.

But as the details of the plan trickled out, it grew clear that some groups would face a tricky task squaring their base position with a more nuanced response.

While most green groups had nothing but praise for Obama, Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said the proposal "doesn't go far enough to put us on the right path."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that offered the EPA the first fully developed blueprint to help shape the proposal in 2012, said it will continue to push to make the rules stronger over the coming months.

For instance, NRDC policy director David Doniger said the EPA was assuming a ramp-up of energy efficiency of 1.5 percent per year as a possible best system of emission reduction, but invited comment whether that could be raised to 2% per year.

“That makes a big difference in the overall reductions.  We have argued in our proposal for the two percent improvement, and we will continue to advocate that,” he said.

The group had originally urged the EPA to order a 30 percent cut by 2020, rather than the 2030 target in the proposal, measured from 2012, a lower base year for emissions.

POWER SPLIT

While the National Association of Manufacturers lashed out at the EPA proposal, warning it would remove "reliable and abundant sources of energy from our nation’s energy mix," the electric utility industry offered a more measured reaction.

The Edison Electric Institute said it was “thoroughly reviewing” the proposed guidelines to make sure the compliance requirements and timelines were achievable across the industry.

Its president Tom Kuhn welcomed some of the flexible elements the agency weaved into the bill but did not fully endorse the program either.

“While we are still assessing the overall proposal, EPA appears to have allowed for a range of compliance options to reflect the diversity of approaches that states and electric utilities have undertaken and may undertake to reduce GHG emissions,” he said in a statement.

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Jonathan Leff and Cynthia Osterman)

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