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Obama's Carbon Battle: Everyone Is Suiting Up For A Fight

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WASHINGTON -- The fight over carbon reduction requirements for the fleet of existing power plants in the United States is well underway -- and the Obama administration hasn't even released the standards yet.

The rules are due Monday, and President Barack Obama himself is expected to announce them, adding to the hype.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report claiming that the expected rules will cost the U.S. economy $50 billion a year and eliminate 224,000 jobs. Karen Harbert, the president and CEO of the Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy criticized the "unprecedented and aggressive EPA regulations" in a statement.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has been quiet about the specifics of the forthcoming standards, the agency pushed back on the Chamber report. "The cost of inaction on climate is the real drain on our economy," EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in an email to Bloomberg. "In 2012, we saw the second-costliest year in U.S. history for natural disasters. Even the strongest sectors can't escape the pressures of a changing climate, so it is time for us to lead."

The country's biggest business lobby has long opposed efforts to cut greenhouse gases, going so far as to argue that climate change might actually be a good thing. More recently, in a Senate hearing, Harbert repeatedly dodged questions about whether she thinks emissions generated by the burning of fossil fuels are causing the climate to change.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates who have pushed for the EPA to move forward on rules for existing power plants, which account for about 40 percent of U.S. emissions, are also armoring up. The Natural Resources Defense Council released its own paper on Thursday afternoon that touted projected benefits of the rule, claiming that it will save Americans $37.4 billion on electric bills and create 274,000 jobs.

With these rules, said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the NRDC, "climate will have turned into an ordinary environmental issue, not something where people claim we can't go near this, it's too hard a lift." That, he said at a press conference on Wednesday, "will fundamentally change the political dynamic on climate change."

But no one expects it to be an easy lift. Monday's announcement will be just the draft standards; those standards won't be finalized until June 2015. And the proposal is expected to allow each state to determine how it will meet the standards. States would have about a year to develop a compliance plan and submit it to the EPA for approval.

And while there has been a lot of speculation in the dueling reports about what the rules might look like, it is still largely that -- speculation. It remains to be seen at what level the administration will set the proposed reductions, and how quickly states will be required to meet those reductions. It's also not yet clear if those cuts will need to come from improvements within the power plants, such as new pollution controls, upgrades to equipment, improved efficiency or switching to lower-carbon energy sources such as natural gas, or if states will be able to meet the goals by bringing additional renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower online.

Monday's announcement comes after years of efforts to push the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It started when 13 states, the District of Columbia, a few cities and 13 environmental groups sued the Bush administration EPA, seeking to force the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. In its 2007 decision on Massachusetts v. EPA, the court ruled that the agency must regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act if it finds those emissions could "reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare."

The Bush administration chose not to make a determination about whether gases threatened public health, with the White House reportedly even refusing to open an email that contained the EPA's conclusions so that it would not have to act on them.

The Obama administration set to work on this analysis, producing an endangerment finding shortly after taking office. That set in motion new rules first for cutting emissions from mobile sources, such as cars and trucks, and then for stationary sources, such as power plants. The Obama administration released rules for new power plants last September; Monday's rules, which Obama called for in a major climate address last June, will deal with the emissions from existing power plants.

One thing that is clear: There will almost inevitably be more legal battles over the rules.

"There certainly will be litigation. That's something everyone agrees on," said Brendan Collins, an environmental attorney at the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP who has represented nuclear energy companies and other non-fossil electricity providers as an intervener in defense of EPA rules in other recent lawsuits. "I'm sure that EPA is being extraordinarily attentive to the cases they've won and the cases they've lost," Collins said. "The courts have offered a greater clarity as to what the scope of EPA's discretion is in rulemaking."

Environmental groups say they think the administration is ready for the fight.

"For five years, the administration has been attacked and criticized for everything it does," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told HuffPost. "Obama gets taken to court when he rolls out of bed in the morning. After a while, it just becomes the cost of doing business."

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