New analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) finds that the U.S. is not on track to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17% by 2020 (below 2005 levels) but that it has the tools to get there. Specifically, the report looks at steps the Obama Administration and states can take without congressional action. Those steps would, not surprisingly, require emissions reductions from existing power plants and natural gas systems.

The Feb. 6 release of “Can the U.S. Get There from Here? Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions” implicitly acknowledges that climate change legislation’s chances in Congress are slim to none. Hence, the report focuses on what other policymakers can do. However, it also notes that “the mid-century goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent or more appears unattainable using existing authorities. New legislation will eventually be needed.”

The WRI analysis finds that the Obama Administration, which committed to the 17% goal in 2009, has the opportunity to move forward in four key areas:

  • Implementing “strong standards for carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants.”
  • Reducing non-energy sources of emissions, including hydrofluorocarbons.
  • Limiting methane emissions from natural gas production.
  • Increasing energy efficiency from industry and home appliances.

In its summary for policymakers, the WRI recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “should immediately pursue ‘go-getter’ emissions reductions from power plants and natural gas systems using its authority under the Clean Air Act. These two sectors represent two of the top opportunities for substantial GHG reductions between now and 2035.” Though it mentions slow economic growth, coal-to-gas fuel-switching, and reduced demand for transportation fuel as factors that have moderated U.S. GHG emissions since its last report, the WRI still projects “relatively modest growth” in emissions over the coming decades in its business-as-usual scenario.

The report says that carbon emissions from power plants can be reduced through the following federal regulatory authorities:

  • “Flexible and ambitious” performance standards for existing power plants under section 111 of the Clean Air Act (the EPA’s 2012 new source performance standards only covered new power plants).
  • Appliance and equipment efficiency standards under Department of Energy authority.

As with power plants, the EPA can regulate natural gas systems by setting emissions performance standards for methane under section 111 of the Clean Air Act for new and existing natural gas systems. The WRI suggests even greater emissions reductions could be achieved by tightening standards for other pollutants, “such as volatile organic compounds and air toxics, as [the EPA] recently did with respect to new equipment in the U.S. oil and gas sector.”

While acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding actual levels of methane emissions from natural gas systems, meaning “that the absolute magnitude of abatement opportunities is uncertain, the WRI says, “Nevertheless, our analysis identifies important opportunities to reduce emissions from this sector. Those reductions are some of the lowest cost opportunities identified in this analysis.”

Fossil fuel combustion at industrial facilities (accounting for 9% of U.S. GHG emissions, the report says) and noncombustion industrial processes (4% of emissions) are also targeted for EPA regulation through performance standards under the Clean Air Act.

The report also points to the value of state actions such as transportation, energy efficiency, and renewables programs—as well as more ambition approaches such as California’s recently launched cap-and-trade program—though it notes that state-level action alone would be insufficient to reach the 17% reduction goal.

Sources: POWERnews, GAS POWER, WRI

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine, @GailReit)

This story was originally posted on Feb. 6