EPA Chief Offers Glimpse Into Climate Rules for Existing Power Plants

Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at a climate workshop sponsored by The Climate Center at Georgetown University, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama is poised to nominate McCarthy as head of the powerful Environmental Protection Agency. McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, reportedly has the inside track to replace Lisa Jackson, who officially stepped down from the agency last week. 
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Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 23, 2013, 10:03 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate-change rules tar­get­ing ex­ist­ing power plants will look vastly dif­fer­ent from the ones En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy an­nounced Fri­day.

The rules Mc­Carthy un­veiled last week, which ap­ply only to plants not yet built, will re­quire new coal-fired power plants to in­stall costly tech­no­logy called car­bon, cap­ture, and se­quest­ra­tion (known as CCS), which cap­tures and stores car­bon emis­sions un­der­ground in­stead of emit­ting the car­bon in­to the at­mo­sphere.

By con­trast, the rules EPA is sched­uled to un­veil next sum­mer will not re­quire this tech­no­logy, Mc­Carthy told re­port­ers at a break­fast brief­ing Monday hos­ted by The Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or.

The dis­tinc­tion is im­port­ant but some­times over­looked as crit­ics of Pres­id­ent Obama’s cli­mate-change agenda roundly pan the en­tire ef­fort as a war against coal. The rules are poised to help re­duce coal’s share of the elec­tri­city pie — right now it’s about 42 per­cent — over the next sev­er­al dec­ades. But coal-fired power is already fa­cing sig­ni­fic­ant chal­lenges com­pet­ing with nat­ur­al gas, which ac­counts for 50 per­cent few­er car­bon emis­sions than coal and, for right now, is both cheap and plen­ti­ful.

“It is really safe to say, if you read the rule, that CCS is really ef­fect­ive as a tool to re­duce emis­sions when it is de­signed with the fa­cil­ity it­self,” Mc­Carthy said in re­sponse to a ques­tion about wheth­er EPA’s rules for ex­ist­ing power plants would also re­quire CCS. “It is not seen, at least at this stage, as an add-on that could be used to put on an ex­ist­ing un­con­ven­tion­al coal fa­cil­ity.”

CCS is con­sidered a pro­hib­it­ively costly tech­no­logy that is be­ing demon­strated in only a few places throughout the en­tire world and is not, for now, com­mer­cially avail­able. Mc­Carthy struck an op­tim­ist­ic tune on this is­sue Monday, just as she did in Fri­day’s an­nounce­ment, which promp­ted sev­er­al ques­tions about the tech­no­logy’s vi­ab­il­ity.

“CCS is feas­ible and is avail­able,” Mc­Carthy said Monday. “We’re not sug­gest­ing that it doesn’t add cost to coal, com­pared to con­ven­tion­al coal. But if you’re look­ing at coal be­ing a vi­able fuel for the fu­ture over the next dec­ades, when we be­lieve cli­mate change must be ad­dressed in­ter­na­tion­ally, it does cre­ate a path for­ward.”

EPA’s rules for the roughly 6,600 power plants op­er­at­ing throughout the coun­try today, in­clud­ing nearly 600 coal-fired plants, will rely on a wholly dif­fer­ent meth­od of rule-mak­ing com­pared with the rules an­nounced Fri­day.

“The new power plant [rule] fol­lows what every­one thinks of the tra­di­tion­al ap­proach that EPA has,” Mc­Carthy said. “Set a stand­ard on what sci­ence tells you to re­duce and also on tech­no­logy avail­ab­il­ity.”

The rule af­fect­ing ex­ist­ing sources, which EPA is sched­uled to pro­pose by June 2014, will not be an across-the-coun­try tech­no­logy stand­ard.

“EPA is sup­posed to look at guidelines for what kind of re­duc­tions na­tion­ally are achiev­able, and then each state is sup­posed to de­vel­op its own plan, take a look at its own suite of activ­it­ies, and look at what’s reas­on­able,” Mc­Carthy said. As po­ten­tial meth­ods of emis­sions-cut­ting states could pur­sue, Mc­Carthy cited more am­bi­tious en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency up­grades and in­teg­rat­ing more re­new­able en­ergy in­to the elec­tric grid.

“We know where the in­vest­ments in clean en­ergy are go­ing,” Mc­Carthy said. “Re­new­ables are get­ting to a tip­ping point now where they make great sense.”

Mc­Carthy also re­acted to the news of a po­ten­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, which would oc­cur Oct. 1 un­less Con­gress doesn’t pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to keep fund­ing the gov­ern­ment.

“It will mean that EPA ef­fect­ively shuts down with only a core group of in­di­vidu­als who are there in an event of a sig­ni­fic­ant emer­gency,” Mc­Carthy said. “If there is no budget, EPA can­not pay its em­ploy­ees. People will not be work­ing; the vast ma­jor­ity of people will not be work­ing. It’s safe to say I will be.”

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