White House Rolls Out Tough New Climate-Change Rules

The long-anticipated limits on coal emissions, the first in a series of aggressive steps to combat global warming, are welcomed by environmental groups, loathed by industry.

Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Thompsons, Texas. The plant, which operates natural gas and coal-fired units, is one of the largest power plants in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the first time, the latest in a string of new regulations that has Republicans bent on reining in the federal body. The new rules will have the greatest impact on Texas, home to more coal-fired power plants than any other state. (AP Photo)  
National Journal
Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
Sept. 19, 2013, 8 p.m.

In his Janu­ary State of the Uni­on ad­dress, Pres­id­ent Obama urged Con­gress to take ac­tion to stop glob­al warm­ing. But he warned, “If Con­gress won’t act soon to pro­tect fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, I will.”

He’s fol­low­ing through on that pledge. Fri­day morn­ing, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency will re­lease a draft reg­u­la­tion to lim­it car­bon pol­lu­tion from coal-fired power plants, the na­tion’s chief source of glob­al warm­ing emis­sions.

The draft reg­u­la­tion is the first of four ma­jor reg­u­lat­ory steps the EPA will take to cre­ate a sig­ni­fic­ant body of ac­tion on cli­mate change be­fore Obama leaves of­fice. The pres­id­ent views these reg­u­la­tions as his glob­al-warm­ing leg­acy. The coal in­dustry and its friends in Con­gress view them as a de­clar­a­tion of war.

The rule was met with cheers from en­vir­on­ment­al groups, but will en­counter a bar­rage of leg­al, le­gis­lat­ive and polit­ic­al at­tacks, chiefly from Re­pub­lic­ans and coal sup­port­ers, who con­tend he cli­mate reg­u­la­tions rep­res­ent over­reach by the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, and that they will kill jobs, wage “war on coal,” raise elec­tri­city costs, and dam­age the eco­nomy.

The draft rule re­quires that all new coal plants built in the U.S. lim­it their emis­sions to less than 1,100 pounds of car­bon pol­lu­tion per mega­watt-hour — just over half the car­bon pol­lu­tion now pro­duced by a typ­ic­al coal-powered plant. The draft is an up­date of a pro­pos­al the EPA re­leased in 2012, which was met with out­rage by the coal in­dustry. That rule re­quired new coal and gas plants to main­tain emis­sions levels of 1,000 pounds of car­bon pol­lu­tion per mega­watt-hour. After meet­ing with power com­pan­ies and coal groups and tak­ing in­to ac­count 2.5 mil­lion pub­lic com­ments, the Obama EPA’s new draft rule al­lows coal plants to emit 10 per­cent more car­bon emis­sions.

EPA law­yers also worked to leg­ally bul­let­proof the rule, which coal in­dustry law­yers in­tend to chal­lenge in court. However, des­pite the slightly looser car­bon lim­its of the new rule, own­ers of coal plants will still have to in­stall ex­pens­ive “car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion” tech­no­logy. While the tech­no­logy, which traps car­bon pol­lu­tion and in­jects it un­der­ground be­fore it spews out of smokestacks, is com­mer­cially avail­able, it could cost power com­pan­ies bil­lions of dol­lars to in­stall.

In­stead, it’s ex­pec­ted that power com­pan­ies will simply in­vest in gen­er­at­ing elec­tri­city from oth­er, less-pol­lut­ing forms of elec­tri­city, chiefly nat­ur­al gas, which emits just half the car­bon pol­lu­tion of coal, but also wind, sol­ar, and nuc­le­ar en­ergy. As it hap­pens, the cli­mate rules co­in­cide with a mar­ket shift from coal to nat­ur­al gas. Thanks to the re­cent boom in pro­duc­tion of cheap nat­ur­al gas, elec­tric util­it­ies have stopped in­vest­ing in new coal plants, and are already in­vest­ing in build­ing new nat­ur­al-gas plants.

But elec­tric util­it­ies that rely heav­ily on coal are still un­easy about the new rule. Amer­ic­an Elec­tric Power, an Ohio-based util­ity that owns one of the na­tion’s largest fleets of coal-fired power plants, stopped build­ing new coal plants be­fore the reg­u­la­tion came out. “We have no cur­rent plans to build any new coal-fueled power plants both be­cause we don’t need ad­di­tion­al gen­er­a­tion, and it would be dif­fi­cult to make an eco­nom­ic case for coal with today’s low nat­ur­al-gas prices,” wrote Melissa McHenry, a spokes­wo­man for the com­pany, in an e-mail. But she ad­ded, “If we value main­tain­ing fuel di­versity as a na­tion, a pro­posed rule that ef­fect­ively elim­in­ates coal as an op­tion for new power plants is a ser­i­ous con­cern, par­tic­u­larly if today’s plen­ti­ful sup­ply of low-cost nat­ur­al gas can’t be main­tained.”

Mean­while, Fri­day’s ac­tion sets the stage for an in­creas­ingly ag­gress­ive set of EPA cli­mate reg­u­la­tions on coal plants. Fol­low­ing this step, EPA will start draft­ing a far more con­tro­ver­sial reg­u­la­tion, re­quir­ing cuts in car­bon pol­lu­tion from ex­ist­ing coal plant — a meas­ure that could lead to clos­ure of cur­rent plants. Obama has told the agency to pro­pose that rule by June 2014. By June 2015, just six months be­fore Obama leaves of­fice, the EPA is ex­pec­ted to is­sue fi­nal ver­sions of the reg­u­la­tions on new and ex­ist­ing plants. Those could, in the years that fol­low, freeze con­struc­tion of new coal plants, lead to clos­ures of ex­ist­ing plants, and fur­ther drive the elec­tri­city mar­ket to­ward lower-car­bon forms of new elec­tri­city. So while today’s draft rule is sig­ni­fic­ant, it’s just the first step in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to is­sue the high-im­pact fi­nal rules in the wan­ing months of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The coal lobby and its al­lies in Con­gress have pree­mpt­ively at­tacked the rule. On Thursday, Rep. Ed Whit­field, a Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an and chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees en­ergy and cli­mate policy, called EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy and En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz be­fore his pan­el, and slammed the cli­mate rules.

They will “fur­ther the eco­nom­ic un­cer­tainty fa­cing our na­tion’s util­it­ies and have dev­ast­at­ing ef­fects on our com­munit­ies an, most im­port­antly, the con­sumers who pay their elec­tri­city bills every month,” he said.

Whit­field in­tends to in­tro­duce a bill in the House to block the car­bon lim­its. While Whit­field’s meas­ure stands no chance of pas­sage in the Demo­crat­ic­ally con­trolled Sen­ate, Re­pub­lic­an strategists hope it will put House Demo­crats in a tough po­s­i­tion: Demo­crats from coal states, as well as Rust Belt and Farm Belt states, who vote against rolling back the rule will see that vote haunt them in cam­paign ads, said Jordan Dav­is, policy dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee.

Mc­Carthy, who as head of the EPA will be the pub­lic face of the new rules, shot back that the dangers of cli­mate change caused by green­house gases present one of the greatest and po­ten­tially most dev­ast­at­ing chal­lenges of our time.

“If our chan­ging cli­mate goes un­checked, it will have dev­ast­at­ing im­pacts on the United States and the plan­et. Re­du­cing car­bon pol­lu­tion is crit­ic­ally im­port­ant to the pro­tec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ health and the en­vir­on­ment upon which our eco­nomy de­pends,” she said. However, she ad­ded, “we have to be sens­it­ive to eco­nom­ic con­sequences of our ac­tion.”

Mc­Carthy has be­gun criss-cross­ing the coun­try to make the case for the cli­mate rules to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic. Last month, she spoke at events in Alaska and Iowa — where she at­ten­ded the Iowa State Fair with Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Terry Bran­stad.

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