EPA proposes limits on pollution from power plants

Cris Ritchie — Civitas Media News Service

September 20, 2013

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced a proposal to curb carbon emissions from future power plants built in the U.S., with some criticizing the standards as a furtherance of President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”

Calling climate change one of the most pressing public health issues of our time, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the new standards are aimed at lessening the impact of global climate change caused by carbon pollution in the air. Power plants, she said, represent the single largest carbon polluter in the nation.

“The overwhelming judgment of science tells us that climate change is real, human activities are fueling that change, and we must take action to avoid the most devastating consequences,” McCarthy said.

Climate change, she said, is leading to erratic weather patterns such heat waves and drought, which in turn drive up the cost of food and pose significant health risks such such as heat-related deaths.

On average, coal-fired power plants in the U.S. emit just under 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per kilowatt hour. Under the proposed standard, new coal plants would be restricted to 1,100 pounds per kilowatt hour, essentially requiring utilities to capture the carbon before it is release into the atmosphere and storing it underground. The technology to do this is proven, though not commercially. And therein lies a concern, noted Ronn Robinson, corporate communications director for Kentucky Power Company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power.

“I think that’s part of the issue here: Is the technology available to meet the rule?” he said. “Technological feasibility is not the same as commercial availability.”

Robinson said carbon capture technology has been demonstrated on a small scale, but the cost of implementing the technology on a commercial scale will likely prevent the construction of any new coal-fired plants, because the cost would be passed on to the customer in the form of higher rates.

“I think, not only for Kentucky Power AEP, but for utilities across the country, if it’s prohibitive to build coal-fired power plants because of the rules, they won’t be built. Regulators won’t approve excessive costs to comply with technology that’s not commercially viable.”

Robinson noted the proposed standards won’t be finalized until next summer and will have no impact on the company’s planned action to purchase a stake in a coal-fired plant in West Virginia. But at the same time, they do raise questions about the future of coal in America.

“I think it raises serious concern about the country’s ability to use coal into a fuel mix,” he said. “Gas and coal and wind and all that is going to be part of the future, but this raises some concerns about that.”

In McCarthy’s speech on Friday, the EPA chief said the standards are flexible and will usher in a new generation of power plants that are cleaner and utilize American technologies, leading to further investment in methods such as carbon capture.

“With these investments, technologies will eventually mature and become as common for new power plants as scrubbers have become for well-controlled plants today,” McCarthy said.

But the proposal is meeting with opposition from lawmakers in Kentucky, where the coal mining industry has continued to shed jobs in the past two years, including the loss of more than 500 jobs when James River Coal announced furloughs just this week.

Republican Congressman Hal Rogers, who represents the 5th Congressional District in the Eastern Coalfields, said the EPA proposal would further eliminate jobs in his home district, one of the nation’s poorest where unemployment rates in most counties are well above 10 percent.

“This War on Coal is a war on our way of life, already costing our region more than 6,200 high-paying mining jobs. Today’s latest assault is sadly no different,” Rogers said in a statement released on Friday. “These overreaching, unworkable greenhouse gas regulations will cost thousands more jobs and increase energy costs for every household, small business and our seniors on fixed income.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader, described Friday’s announcement as the latest salvo in President Obama’s “war on coal,” and he will sponsor a resolution of disapproval to prevent the regulations from going into effect.

“This is another attempt by the President to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation’s coal mines,” McConnell said. “Sadly, it does not come as a shock given his failed attempt at getting Congress to pass a cap and tax bill designed to hike utility rates and bankrupt the coal industry.”

The proposed standards represent the first limits to be placed on carbon pollution and will only be applied to newly built coal- and gas-fired plants. The EPA is expected to release a separate proposal on existing plants next year.