The top White House climate change adviser today stopped just short of saying that carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants would be included when President Obama rolls out his second-term climate change strategy next month.
Speaking at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., hosted by The New Republic magazine, Heather Zichal broadly hinted that Clean Air Act rules for both new and existing power plants would be part of the promised White House climate change announcement.
She called the Clean Air Act a tool "that we know that we can implement with success," especially for utility sector emissions.
"EPA has been working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants," she said. "They're doing a lot of important work in that space."
Some of that work has already been shown to the public.
U.S. EPA proposed a rule for future power plants in April 2012, which would require the plants to limit their emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour regardless of what technology they employ. Industry groups have complained that this level is achievable by most new gas-fired power plants but would require coal plants to commit to use carbon capture and storage technology that they say is unproven on a commercial scale.
The agency has missed a deadline to finalize the rule, but Zichal pledged today that "we'll take the steps to move that policy process forward."
But she implied that the new power plant rule may not be the only one in EPA's regulatory pipeline that will apply to the power sector.
Zichal referred to rules for the existing fleet when she answered an audience question about any changes EPA might be considering for the new power plant rule.
"We have never as a country put forward a regulation on new or existing coal plants before," she said. "And I think whether that's the president or the team at EPA, everyone is very focused on making sure that those policies are done the right way, that those policies are going to provide the right incentives going forward, the right policy to really drive emissions reductions, and I'm very confident that we'll land that policy in the right place."
This statement appeared to be a departure from past statements by administration officials that EPA had "no plans" to regulate today's power plant fleet, which contributes 40 percent of man-made CO2 in the United States.
Environmentalists insist that any meaningful administration response to climate change must include robust rules for the entire utility sector. They have made existing power plant standards their top request for Obama's second term, followed closely by rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Some of the other components of Obama's July announcement are also seeming to take shape. Zichal repeated today that the White House will ask the Department of Energy to craft new energy efficiency standards and the Interior Department to "streamline" permitting of renewable energy production on public lands. She mentioned the same ideas a week ago during an appearance on Capitol Hill.
Zichal said that Obama's climate proposal would not rely on Congress to grant any new authorities or appropriate any additional funds. She also reiterated that he is not "proposing" a tax on CO2 emissions, an idea put forward by several congressional Democrats.
Visiting Germany today, Obama commended European action on climate change. He touted a recent drop in U.S. CO2 emissions but pledged "we will do more" (see related story).
That "more" has to come fairly quickly, especially when it comes to Clean Air Act rules, said Dan Lashof, climate and clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Speaking on a panel at The New Republic event immediately following Zichal, Lashof noted that the Clean Air Act prescribes a process for rulemaking that can require several years to complete. Rules must be proposed, public comments solicited and reviewed, rules finalized, and state implementation plans crafted, he said.
"To get that done and in effect by the end of the president's administration really means we've got to start now," he said.