Administration Presses Ahead With Limits on Emissions From Power Plants

Source: By MICHAEL D. SHEAR, New York Times • Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013

Matt Brown/Associated Press

President Obama has told officials that he wants limits on all plants, like one in Colstrip, Mont., by the time he leaves office.

 WASHINGTON — A year after a plan by President Obama to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants set off angry opposition, the administration will announce on Friday that it is not backing down from a confrontation with the coal industry and will press ahead with enacting the first federal carbon limits on the nation’s power companies.

The proposed regulations, to be announced at the National Press Club by Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, are an aggressive move by Mr. Obama to bypass Congress on climate change with executive actions he promised in his inaugural address this year. The regulations are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”

In her speech, Ms. McCarthy will unveil the agency’s proposal to limit new gas-fired power plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour and new coal plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to administration officials who were briefed on the agency’s plans. Industry officials say the average advanced coal plant currently emits about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour.

“New power plants, both natural gas and coal-fired, can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of modern technologies,” Ms. McCarthy will say Friday, according to her prepared remarks. “Simply put, these standards represent the cleanest standards we’ve put forth for new natural gas plants and new coal plants.”

Aides said Ms. McCarthy would also announce a yearlong schedule for an environmental listening tour — a series of meetings across the country with the public, the industry and environmental groups as the agency works to establish emissions limits on existing power plants — a far more costly and controversial step. Mr. Obama has told officials he wants to see greenhouse gas limits on both existing and new power plants by the time he leaves office in 2017.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said in January. But he acknowledged that “the path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”

The limits to be unveiled Friday are a slightly more relaxed standard for coal plants than the administration first proposed in April 2012. Officials said the new plan, which came after the E.P.A. received more than 2.5 million comments from the public and industry, will give coal plant operators more flexibility to meet the limits over several years.

Still, environmental groups are likely to hail the announcement as an important step in targeting the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Forty percent of all energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases in 2012 came from power plants, and most of that came from coal-burning power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“We are thrilled that the E.P.A. is taking this major step forward in implementing President Obama’s climate action plan,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, in anticipation of Ms. McCarthy’s announcement. “It’s a great day for public heath and a clean energy future.”

But Republican lawmakers and industry officials have already attacked the expected proposal. Opponents of the new rules argue that the technology to affordably reduce carbon emissions at power plants is not yet available and will drastically increase the cost of electricity.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader and a fierce advocate for coal in a coal-dependent state, said in an interview Thursday that he expected “the worst.” Although he had not seen the administration’s latest proposal, Mr. McConnell said it was likely to alarm people in his state.

“It’s a devastating blow to our state, and we’re going to fight it in every way we can,” Mr. McConnell said.

Scott Segal, the director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents power companies, said the details he had heard about the rules suggested that the administration would drive investment away from a plentiful source of power.

“I’m afraid it’s going to be illegal, counterproductive from an environmental perspective and contrary to our long-range interest in creating jobs, holding down costs and producing reliable energy,” Mr. Segal said.

The rules on new power plants will soon face a 60-day public comment period, likely to be followed by intensive industry and environmental lobbying and possible court challenges. Officials said the rules could be finalized by the fall of 2014.

Once the rules are in place, coal power plants would be required to limit their emissions, likely by installing technology called “carbon capture and sequestration,” which scrubs carbon dioxide from their emissions before they reach the plant smokestacks. The technology then pumps it into permanent storage underground.

Industry representatives argue that such technology has not been proven on a large scale and would be extraordinarily expensive — and therefore in violation of provisions in the Clean Air Act that require the regulations to be adequately demonstrated and not exorbitant in cost.

“I think the agency has real problems” meeting both of those standards, Mr. Segal said.

But E.P.A. officials argue that the carbon capture technology has been used in several locations and that a review of the industry over the past year proves that owners of new coal-fired power plants can meet the new standards as required by the act.

Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement that the proposed rules would begin a new era in which the United States began real efforts to control “climate-altering pollution” from the nation’s power plants.

“These rules are reasonable,” Mr. Markey said. “They are feasible. And they should soon be expanded to include standards for existing power plants.”

In one concession to the industry, officials said the agency would provide some flexibility. Plants that could install the technology within 12 months would be required to meet the 1,100-pound limit, officials said. Owners of coal plants would also have the option of phasing in the limits over a seven-year period, officials said. But those plants would be required to meet a stricter standard of 1,000 to 1,050 pounds per megawatt hours, averaged over the seven years.