WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration unveiled a plan Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third over the next 15 years, in a sweeping initiative to curb pollutants blamed for global warming.
However, the regulation pushes the deadline for some states to comply until long after President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017. That means even if the rules survive legal and other challenges, the dust won't likely settle on this transformation until well into the next presidential administration, raising the possibility that political dynamics in either Congress or the White House could alter the rule's course.
Roughly 40-percent of North Carolina’s power comes from burning coal, but that number is dropping, because Duke is closing coal plants like the one at Riverbend in Mt. Holly. Duke is building natural gas and what it calls “clean coal” power plants to replace them. Those plants are cleaner, and natural gas is relatively cheap.
A state law passed seven years ago says 12 and a half percent of the electricity Duke makes here has to come from renewable sources by 2021, so private companies are building solar farms like crazy to sell that power to Duke.
That’s the good news. The bad news concerns the real price of electricity. “In the next 20 years, the real price is going to go up. Dramatically,” then-CEO Jim Rogers said in a speech in 2011. “We’re taking depreciated old plants, and we’re building new plants. That drives up our cost.”
Closing plants and making them cleaner, costs money. North Carolina, which has some of the cheaper power rates in the nation, could see higher rates if the proposal goes through.
RELATED: Why is electricity in North Carolina so cheap?
Under the plan, expected to be finalized next year, carbon emissions would be reduced 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. It is a centerpiece of Obama's plans to tackle climate change and aims to give the United States more leverage to prod other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year.
But the proposal sets off a complex regulatory process, steeped in politics, in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customized targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The policy change, which will further diminish the role of coal in U.S. electrical production, carries significant political and legal risks.
Although Obama doesn't need a vote in Congress to approve his plans, opponents in Congress could attempt to block them, and some Republicans have already vowed to pursue that course. Scuttling the rules could be easier if Republicans, who already control the House of Representatives, take the Senate in November and then the White House in 2016.
Another potential flash point: The plan relies heavily on governors agreeing to develop plans to meet the federal standard. If Republican governors refuse to go along, the EPA can create its own plan for a state. But the specifics of how EPA could force a state to comply with that plan remain murky.
"The glue that holds this plan together - and the key to making it work - is that each state's goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever works best for them," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, according to prepared remarks released in advance of Monday's formal announcement.
McCarthy characterized the proposal as "ambitious, but achievable."
Some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, leading to an overall, nationwide reduction of 30 percent.
Many states that rely heavily on coal will be spared from cutting a full 30 percent. West Virginia, for example, must cut 23 percent by 2030 compared to what the state was emitting in 2012. On the other extreme, New York has a 44 percent target, EPA figures show.
Initially, Obama wanted each state to submit their plans by June 2016. But the draft proposal shows states could have until 2017 - and 2018, if they join with other states to tackle the problem.
Power plants are the largest U.S. source of greenhouse gases, accounting for about a third of the annual emissions. EPA data show power plants have already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005, meaning they are about halfway to meeting the administration's goal.
The EPA projected that carrying out the plan will cost up to $8.8 billion annually in 2030, but the actual costs will depend heavily on how states choose to reach their targets. The administration argued that any costs to comply are far outweighed by savings in health costs that the U.S. will realize thanks to reductions in other pollutants like soot and smog that will accompany a shift away from dirtier fuels.
Environmental groups hailed the proposal, praising both the climate effects and the public health benefits they said would follow. Former Vice President Al Gore, a prominent environmental advocate, called it "the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in our country's history."
But energy advocates sounded the alarm, warning of economic drag. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the proposal "a dagger in the heart of the American middle class."
"If these rules are allowed to go into effect, the administration for all intents and purposes is creating America's next energy crisis," said Mike Duncan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry.
Options for states to meet the targets include making power plants more efficient, reducing the frequency at which coal-fired power plants supply power to the grid, and investing in more renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. States could also enhance programs aimed at reducing demand by making households and businesses more energy-efficient. Each of those categories will have a separate target tailor-made for each state.
Coal once supplied about half the nation's electricity, but has dropped to 40 percent amid a boom in natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar.
The EPA predicted that coal would still remain a leading source of electricity in the U.S., providing more than 30 percent of the projected supply.
Obama has already tackled the emissions from the nation's cars and trucks, announcing rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by doubling fuel economy.