New carbon pollution rules could still be years away

When President Barack Obama unveils his broad plan for combating climate change on Tuesday, he is expected to tout new rules to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The change would take aim at one of the biggest single sources of carbon emissions in the United States by going after existing power plants that produce 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels.

But analysts on Monday noted that despite the White House’s fanfare, any change is likely years away.

After all, a December 2010 settlement between conservationists and the Environmental Protection Agency already obligated the federal government to set new standards governing carbon emissions from power plants and refineries. But while deadlines for imposing those standards has  passed, even last year’s proposal for limits on existing power plants has not been finalized. And refinery rules are even further off.

“An announcement of the intent to conclude ongoing regulatory efforts is not the same thing as proposing or finalizing a regulation,” said Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy in Washington.

And it’s likely to take a while. “The fuse is longer than media coverage may suggest,” Book said in a note to clients Monday.

The entire process of rolling out new regs — and perhaps developing a tradable credit system for utilities to comply — could take years.

“It could take two or three years to draft, receive comment and final regulations, after which there are 21 months for states to propose — and get approved — plans before compliance is required,” said Benjamin Salisbury, with FBR Capital Markets. The EPA also could propose even longer compliance deadlines, Salisbury added..

Obama offered few specifics in his weekend video previewing his Tuesday speech on climate change, but he has previously vowed to use his executive powers to tackle global warming, if Congress doesn’t act. The biggest weapon in his arsenal is the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act.

“I’ll lay out my vision for where I believe we need to go: a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change and lead global efforts to fight it,” Obama said.

He made no mention of power plants at all; instead, Obama highlighted new fuels and clean energy.

“There is no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change,” he said, but America is “uniquely suited” to tackle the “serious challenge.”

“We’ll need scientists to design new fuels and farmers to grow them,” Obama said. “We’ll need engineers to devise new sources of energy and businesses to make and sell them. We’ll need workers to build the foundations of a clean energy economy.”

Environmentalists insist a plan for curbing emissions from existing power plants is essential, but that Obama shouldn’t stop there.

“President Obama’s climate plan should clean up the largest global warming polluters and advance clean energy solutions, to help protect Americans and future generations from more severe weather and other consequences of global warming,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. “In addition to cleaning up carbon pollution from power plants, we will look for the president’s plan to advance energy efficiency measures and expand renewable energy — two critical steps toward getting the nation on track to a truly clean energy future.”

An array of options are on the table, including efforts to pave the way for renewable power projects on public lands.

Obama is likely to face a fight with Republicans, electric utilities and other interests over aspects of his plan. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it was “absolutely crazy” to clamp down on power plants’ carbon pollution.