06/02/2014 11:54 EDT | Updated 08/02/2014 05:59 EDT

U.S. carbon dioxide limits touted by EPA as economically wise

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially unveiled the Obama administration’s plan Monday to cut greenhouse gases 30 per cent by 2030, stressing what it says will be the economic benefits of its "clean-air revolution."

Under the plan, carbon emissions would be reduced 30 per cent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, one of the most significant actions to address global warming in U.S. history.

"The bottom line is we have never ... had to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment," EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in a Washington news conference.

McCarthy framed the changes as necessary for Americans' health and the future of the environment, but spent most of her address stressing the economic benefits.

“This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps … this is about protecting our health and it is about protecting our homes," she said. "It’s about protecting local economies and it’s about protecting jobs.”

McCarthy said the U.S. would save money on health-care costs and insurance premiums as the reduced pollution clears the air and slows severe weather. She also said the changes will be a boon to investors, entrepreneurs and labourers as new low-carbon technologies are brought to market and built, and that any "small short-term change in electricity prices" would be in line with "a gallon of milk a month."

Environmental Protection Agency data shows that U.S. power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 per cent since 2005, or about halfway to their goal. But with coal-fired power plants already beleaguered by booming natural gas supplies and other environmental regulations, experts have told The Associated Press that getting there won't be easy. The EPA is offering a range of options to states based on where they get their electricity from and how much carbon dioxide they emit in the process.

U.S. President Barack Obama has already tackled the emissions from the nation's cars and trucks, announcing rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by doubling fuel economy. That standard will reduce carbon dioxide by more than 1.8 billion tonnes. The power plant proposal will prevent about 390 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, based on the 30 per cent figure.

States to play pivotal role

The push against Obama's new carbon emission standards has been strongest in some states that have large coal-mining industries or rely heavily on coal to fuel their electricity. State officials say the new federal regulations could jeopardize the jobs of thousands of workers and drive up the monthly electric bills of residents and businesses.

It remains to be seen whether new measures passed by the states will amount to mere political symbolism or actually temper what's expected to be an aggressive federal effort to reduce the country's reliance on coal. But either way, states likely will play a pivotal role, because federal clean air laws leave it up to each state to come up with its own plan for complying with the emission guidelines.

McCarthy said she expects critics to make "tired" claims about costs and reliability. 

"The most costly thing of all that we can do is nothing," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the proposal "a dagger in the heart of the American middle class."

"If these rules are allowed to go into effect, the administration for all intents and purposes is creating America's next energy crisis," said Mike Duncan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry.