Nebraska will have to reduce its carbon emissions by about 26 percent by 2030 under a plan proposed Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The 645-page plan expected to be finalized next year is the centerpiece of President Obama's efforts to fight climate change, reduce public health risks and help the environment and sluggish economy.
"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs."
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups applauded the administration's action, saying the new standard will clean up the industry that creates the lion’s share of carbon pollution in the United States.
“Climate disruption is the greatest challenge facing our generation," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said. "Until now, power plants have been allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air, driving dangerous climate disruption and fueling severe drought, wild fires, heat waves and super storms."
Conservatives, however, blasted the Obama plan, saying it will lead to higher energy bills for families, lost jobs and diminished economic growth.
"Once again the Obama administration is putting its own global-warming ideology ahead of the interests of hard-working taxpayers," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans For Prosperity.
The goal of the plan announced Monday is to curb carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants like arsenic and mercury from coal plants, which account for roughly one third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Under it, carbon emissions are to be reduced 30 percent nationwide from 2005 levels by 2030.
Many states that rely heavily on coal will be spared from cutting a full 30 percent. West Virginia, for example, must cut 23 percent and Ohio's target is 28 percent, while Kentucky and Wyoming will have to find ways to make 18 percent and 19 percent cuts, respectively.
Based on EPA calculations, Nebraska will have to cut its carbon emissions by 26 percent of what the state was emitting in 2012.
States can decide how to meet their respective goals and will have two or three years to submit final plans, depending on whether they work alone or with other states.
The EPA says the state goals are not requirements on individual power plants.
Troy Bredenkamp with the Nebraska Rural Electric Association said the rules will likely require some expensive updates. But he hopes the state will be able to comply without drastic changes because it does get a significant amount of its electricity from nuclear and hydropower.
According to 2011 figures from the Nebraska Department of Energy, the state gets 72 percent of its electricity from coal, 19 percent from nuclear, 4.5 percent from hydro, 3 percent from wind, 1 percent from natural gas and the remainder from bio-gas and other petroleum fuels.
Nebraska's three largest utilities — the Nebraska Public Power District, Omaha Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System — are reviewing and analyzing the federal proposal to determine the effect on their operations.
"We don't expect any major changes in the next year or so," said NPPD spokesman Mark Becker. "After that, we will put our solid strategy in place to meet the long-term requirements of the regulation."
He said the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality will play a big role in determining carbon emission levels for the state. Utility officials have pointed out that utilities in Nebraska use low-sulfur coal, which helps cut down on harmful emissions.
NPPD gets about 56 percent of its power from coal, including power from the Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland and Sheldon Station near Hallam.
In 2012, a coalition of mostly environmental groups opposed NPPD’s plans to spend as much as $1.5 billion to retrofit its aging coal-fired power plants, including Sheldon Station, which began operations in 1961. The coalition said doing so would increase electric rates dramatically and urged NPPD to spend the money on building more wind farms.
NPPD has no plans to close Sheldon at this time.
OPPD spokesman Mike Jones said it has already taken steps to reduce carbon emissions. In May, it added 200 megawatts of wind capacity from the Prairie Breeze wind farm in northeast Nebraska and plans to add 400 megawatts from the Grande Prairie wind farm near O'Neill in 2017-18.
Some environmentalists have called on OPPD to close its oldest coal plant on the north side of Omaha, but Jones said no decision has been made. The utility has another coal plant, with two generation units, south of Nebraska City.
LES management is also reviewing the plan. The city-owned utility has partial interests in coal plants in Wyoming and Iowa. It also has smaller plants near Lincoln that can burn natural gas and oil and methane. LES also owns interests in several wind projects.
Spokeswoman Kelley Porter said LES has been very aggressive in adding renewables to its generation mix and providing customer programs that help reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
"By 2016, over 23 percent of LES' annual retail sales will be supplied by renewable resources," she said.
The plan will cost America's economy more than $50 billion a year between now and 2030, according to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy.
Bold Nebraska, the grassroots group fighting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, commended Obama's decision to reduce carbon emissions.
Bold Nebraska's energy policy is simple: no tar sands, less coal and more renewables, Bold Nebraska Director Jane Kleeb said in a statement.
The pipeline project, which is awaiting a federal permit, would ship oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Kleeb said Obama's Clean Power Plan sets the stage for denial of the Keystone XL.