What Is the Clean Power Plan?

Under the proposed Climate Action Plan, power plants using fossil fuels will need to increase their efficiency. click/morguefile

The Clean Power Plan is a set of guidelines aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants. In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule to set limits for the first time on carbon emissions from power plants. The rule, dubbed Clean Power Plan, is part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan released in 2013 (on the heels of the country’s hottest year ever recorded).

The plan’s broad goals are to cut carbon pollution, prepare for the effects of climate change, and provide international leadership in climate change matters. Targeting power plants is a logical choice: they produce one third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. For a long time now there have been limits on the emissions of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides from power plants, but there never were any national limits on carbon pollution levels.

Here’s what the Clean Power Plan is about:

  • As part of the Clean Air Act, the plan has guidelines for individual states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants. The overall reduction goal is 32% of the 2005 carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030.
  • As a co-benefit, by 2030 particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide will be reduced by 25%.
  • The estimated climate and health benefits from this plan are between $48 billion and $82 billion.  By 2030, premature deaths should be reduced by 6,600, asthma attacks in children should be reduced by 140,000 to 150,000, and up to 490,000 missed school or work days will be avoided.
  • These emission reductions can be achieved through four goals: 1) making coal-fired power plants more efficient, 2) using natural gas-fired plants more effectively, 3) increasing production of renewal energy such as wind and solar power, and finalizing the construction of low emissions nuclear power plants, and 4) reducing the demand for electricity through more efficient end-uses (appliances, heating and cooling, etc.).
  • The plan will set specific emissions limits for each state, based on their current mix of electricity generation sources. The reduction goals vary widely: at the less demanding end of the spectrum Connecticut and Idaho would need to reduce their emissions by less than 10% by 2030 compared to a 2012 baseline. The biggest reduction burdens would be expected from Montana and North Dakota would need to cut emissions by at least 45%.
  • The plan will also provide guidelines for each state to draft and implement a state plan addressing how it would achieve the new emission goals. States will have to submit their action plan by September 2016.
  • The EPA will not dictate how the goals are reached, each state will have the flexibility to decide how to best navigate its own challenges and take advantage of its opportunities. This approach is the hallmark of the Clean Air Act, which has been a public health and environmental success for over 40 years.

Environmental groups (for example the National Resources Defense Council) are generally in support of the plan, though some see the proposal as too weak. Coal industry representatives and politicians representing coal regions project the loss of jobs if the new standards are applied.

Some conservative politicians have expressed disagreement with categorizing carbon dioxide as pollution, since it’s a natural component of air and is necessary for plant growth. In some parts of the country, the resistance to these standards is such that a dozen states are taking the federal government to court to avoid implementation of the plan. 

A four-month public comments period was held to allow comments from anyone wishing to make their opinion known. Incredibly, over 4.3 million comments were received. The final details of the Plan were unveiled in August 2015. 


Environmental Protection Agency, 2015. Clean Power Plan Proposal.

Environmental Protection Agency, 2014. News Release: EPA Proposes First Guidelines to Cut Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants.