Florida must cut carbon under Obama climate plan

Florida’s heavy reliance on natural gas could make cutting carbon pollution under an ambitious plan unveiled Monday by the Obama administration easier to swallow.

The complex rule, touted as the strongest federal effort yet to combat climate change by regulating power plant carbon emissions for the first time, calls for reducing emissions nationally by 30 percent by 2030. The rule covers all fossil fuel-powered plants, which generate about 6 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases, but chiefly targets the nation’s biggest polluters: coal-fired power plants.

Florida, which gets about 68 percent of its power from plants running on natural gas, would have to reduce emissions by 38 percent, according to calculations by the Environmental Protection Agency.

While the proposed rule has been generally praised by environmentalists, some Florida and national industry groups argue it will drive up fuel and consumer costs.

“These new onerous regulations will weigh down businesses and make it more difficult for them to expand here in Florida,” said Tom Feeney, CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida. “There are more cost-effective and sustainable solutions to create energy efficiency.”

But environmentalists say the regulations are long overdue.

“Up until this point, polluters could just put as much carbon in the atmosphere as they wanted with no limit, and the fact of the matter is we all pay for that,” said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The plan is being drafted under the Clean Air Act of 1970, which allows states to tailor their own plans for dealing with the regulations. That strategy gives states flexibility to seek a combination of remedies, including closing older pollution-generating plants, swapping emissions under a cap-and-trade plan and reducing consumption. But some worry that lack of uniformity could also expose the rule to drawn-out litigation.

Environmentalists also complained that the EPA used carbon levels from 2005, when emissions were at their highest, rather than 2012, the last year numbers are available. Using the more recent levels would have required larger reductions.

Florida, for example, already has cut carbon pollution since 2005 by about 13 percent, said Ted Kury, a University of Florida energy researcher.

“This represents 30 percent essentially from a high water mark,” said Kury, who also questioned why the agency based calculations on rates of use per megawatt hour rather than total tons, the typical measurement.

In pure tonnage, Florida is ranked fifth in the country for emitting carbon. But its rate ranks far lower because it uses so much nuclear power and natural gas, he said. Natural gas produces half the carbon of coal plants, which generate about 40 percent of the nation’s carbon. Still, about 20 percent of Florida’s energy comes from coal plants, according to the EPA.

“It doesn’t necessarily punish you if you use more electricity,” Kury said. “Since we produce a lot of electricity from natural gas, in terms of rate we emit a lot less in megawatt hours than states like Illinois and Kentucky and all those Midwestern states.”

Kury also believed that the proposed goals will change as the plan undergoes a year of public review.

“Maybe this has anchored us a little bit. But the final numbers will almost certainly look different from what we have now,” he said. “Honestly, it depends on which side’s arguments are the most compelling.”

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest energy producer, said it is still reviewing the 645-page plan. But because it has already converted its older, coal-powered plants to natural gas, producing about 35 percent less emissions than the national average, spokesman Mark Bubriski said the company is well positioned to meet the goal.

“We appreciate that the plan includes flexibility and also recognizes the state’s efforts toward clean energy,” he said.

Environmentalists will also be closely watching how the state decides to implement the plan, Glickman said.

“The federal government has acted, and now it’s up to the state,” she said. “And they’re either going to be on the side of consumers or they’re going to be on the side of polluters.”

States have until 2017 to draft individual plans or, if they decide to team up with neighbors, 2018 for regional plans.