Later this morning, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy will present new draft rules for how much carbon dioxide power plants are to be allowed to spew into the atmosphere. The proposal is considered historic, especially by those who had to sift the 2.5 million or so public comments on the previous draft of these rules. In one respect, it is: This will mark the first time the U.S. has treated carbon dioxide— the leading greenhouse gas that is warming the earth’s atmosphere and imperiling life everywhere— as pollution, full stop. If you’re pumping more than your legal limit of CO2 into the sky, well then, you sir, are a criminal.
Why then does the new rule feel kind of anti-climatic? For one thing, today’s rules aren’t binding (yet), and they’re not so radically different from the earlier, much-commented-upon ones. The two big updates: Coal burning utilities and those burning natural gas will be held to different standards—which is reasonable, given that natural gas burns far cleaner, in terms of CO2—and today’s rules will apply to plants that are currently under construction or will be built in the future. This isn’t about policing the dirtiest of the dirty. It’s about closing a gate behind the dinosaurs.