It’s Time for the EPA to Bypass Congress and Regulate Carbon Emissions on Its Own

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

David Roberts wrote a while back to praise a new proposal from the National Resources Defense Council for reducing carbon emissions from electric plants. The key part of NRDC’s plan is that instead of setting targets for individual plants, something that creates nearly insurmountable problems, EPA would set targets for entire states:

Here’s how it would work: the EPA would first tally up the share of electricity generated by coal and gas-fired plants in each state during the baseline years (2008-2010 was used for this analysis). Then the agency would set a target emission rate for each state for 2020, based on the state’s baseline share of coal and gas generation.

….Each covered plant with an emission rate above the state standard could meet the standard by using one or more compliance options: First, a plant could reduce its own CO2 emission rate by retrofitting a more efficient boiler or installing CO2 capture systems….Second, the owners of multiple power plants could average the emissions rates of their plants, meeting the required emission rate on average by running coal plants less often, and ramping up generation from natural gas plants or renewable sources instead….The plan also allows trading of credits between companies within a state, and across state lines among states that choose to allow it, further lowering the overall costs of compliance.

This is OK, I guess. But I’m confused. If (a) EPA has the authority to set state standards, and (b) maximizing flexibility is a good thing, then why not simply have EPA mandate a national cap-and-trade system? I assume this is a purely political calculation, but I’m not sure I understand it. It’s not as if the usual suspects won’t fight the NRDC’s state-based plan like crazed weasels, and I guarantee that no matter what formula you use, every state in the union will insist that its target is woefully unfair for some reason or another. If your goal is to avoid the political morass of cap-and-trade, I don’t really see how this plan does it.

Besides, if electricity generators have a choice of the NRDC plan vs. national cap-and-trade, I assume they’d pick cap-and-trade. It gives everybody a little more maneuvering room and delivers the same results more efficiently.

In any case, if EPA really does have any serious plans for regulating carbon emissions at existing power plants, they’d better get moving. This kind of thing takes at least four years to get through the regulatory process, and there’s no telling who will be president four years from now. There’s not much time to waste if they want to get something done while Barack Obama is still in the White House.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend