EPA effectively bans coal plants with stifling carbon dioxide limits

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The battle lines have been drawn as 17 states, the coal industry and pro-coal Democrats and Republicans prepare to take on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon dioxide emissions limits.

These sweeping new rules effectively ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

The EPA’s new emissions limits cap carbon emissions for coal plants at 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour , which is an unmeetable standard unless operators install carbon capture and storage technology. This technology has yet to prove commercially viable.

“If these regulations go into effect, American jobs will be lost, electricity prices will soar, and economic uncertainty will grow. We need the federal government to work as a partner, not an adversary, and to invest in America’s energy future,” said West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin,.

Coal plants are being held to nearly the same standard as natural gas-fired power plants which will be allowed to emit 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour. However, natural gas emits about half as much carbon and only natural gas plants will be able to meet the EPA’s new standards.

“Today’s proposal maintains EPA’s pie in the sky standard-setting mentality despite the Agency’s admittance that unilateral regulations would have no impact on global emissions levels,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter. “EPA completely ignores other nations’ missteps, and the severe negative impacts from trying to address carbon emissions. Their actions have resulted in economic uncertainty, job loss, and increased electricity prices, yet the Agency continues to barrel on – full speed ahead.”

Both Republicans and coal country Democrats have opposed the new regulations, arguing it will cripple the coal industry and cause electricity rates to skyrocket.

“The facts are plain and simple: Coal provides the greatest share of electricity we use, generating around 40 percent of our power,” Manchin added. “It’s just common sense to level the playing field and accept that coal is, and will be for the foreseeable future, a significant part of our energy mix.”

However, environmentalists hailed the announcement as a critical step to fulfill President Obama’s vow to address global warming.

“Right now there are no limits at all on the largest source of carbon pollution, so this is a necessary and commonsense step. As communities across our country struggle with terrible floods, droughts, and wildfires, these standards will finally put a limit on the carbon pollution that new power plants emit into our skies,” said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp. “Cleaner power generation will protect our children from dangerous smog, extreme weather, and other serious climate impacts, and ensure that America leads the world in the race to develop cleaner, safer power technologies.”

U.S. power plants emit 40 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide, according to the EDF, and the average coal plant emits 3.5 million tons of carbon year.

Legal challenges

The coal industry has promised a legal challenge to the new rules, based in part on the unproven nature of carbon capture technology. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency can only mandate the use of technologies which have been commercially proven.

“The idea that pollution control technology is too expensive to implement is a familiar theme,” said Megan Ceronsky, attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, told The New York Times. “It’s not a novel response to an environmental regulation.”

The EPA and its allies point to the Kemper Energy Facility in Mississippi, which uses technology that sequesters carbon from gasified coal, stores it, and then sells it to oil companies for enhanced oil recovery. However, the Kemper plant is not yet in operation.

There are no U.S. coal plants currently in operation that demonstrate carbon capture and storage technology.

“What we have seen implies that EPA will rely on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as the basis for establishing their limits,” Scott Segal, director of the industry-backed Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. “Basing standards on highly-subsidized, non-commercial scale and even non-built facilities is contrary to the spirit and plain language of the statute.”

Seventeen states, led by Nebraska, are also poised to challenge the EPA’s next set of emissions caps for existing coal plants, arguing that the such rules are outside of the agency’s Clean Air Act authority.

“EPA, if unchecked, will continue to implement regulations which far exceed its statutory authority to the detriment of the States, in whom Congress has vested authority under the Clean Air Act, and whose citizenry and industries will ultimately pay the price of these costly and ineffective regulations,” wrote 17 state attorneys general and one top state environmental regulator in a white paper.

The Obama administration is expected to issue caps for existing power plants in June 2014.

Fulfilling his campaign promise

Critics say this is President Obama fulfilling his promise to bankrupt the coal industry, referring to a statement he made on the campaign trail in 2008.

“This is another attempt by the President to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation’s coal mines. 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,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Capping carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants is a key component of Obama’s plan to tackle global warming and reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent by 2020.

Environmental groups contend that the U.S. has a moral obligation to cut carbon emissions to address global warming, despite the uncertainty over the benefits of EPA actions.

“We have an obligation to protect future generations from climate change. This is a critical step in that direction,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s time to set limits, for the first time ever, on the carbon pollution from existing power plants, which account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint. We know where this pollution is. It’s time to clean it up.”

Across the country, more than 280 coal plants are slated for shutdown, in part due to EPA regulations, and thousands of coal miners have lost their jobs as mines shut down.

“In the year President Obama took office, there were over 18,600 employed in the coal industry in my state. But as of September 2013, the number of persons employed at Kentucky coal mines is only 13,000.,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Most recently, the James River Coal company announced the closing of several mines in eastern Kentucky and the layoff of 525 employees due to “continued weakness in the domestic and international coal markets.” Republicans have blamed EPA regulations targeting coal for the mines closing.

Can Obama stop the seas from rising?

Effectively banning the construction of new coal plants may help lower U.S. carbon emissions, but critics question if it will impact global warming — which is a global problem.

Demand for coal is on the rise globally, in particularly from developing countries such as China and India who are looking for a cheap way to power their growing economies. This means that U.S. coal could simply find a new home overseas — in power plants that don’t have as strict of pollution standards as U.S. plants.

“Further, as energy costs increase in the US, and manufacturing assets move overseas to areas less sensitive to energy efficiency, carbon emissions might even go up as a result of the rules,” Segal said. “Certainly, if we have to import more goods back to the United States as we lose manufacturing capacity, carbon emissions will increase.”

Furthermore, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy was unable to quantify the impact on global warming for a House committee.

“Yet just Wednesday, the EPA administrator admitted to me during a hearing that the agency doesn’t — and cannot — measure whether any of the regulations it promulgates are effective in combating climate change,” said Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who pressed McCarthy on this point during a House hearing on Wednesday.

“[T]he stated EPA goal for this rule is to reduce the impacts of climate change,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. “Where, then, is EPA’s analysis of how this rule will reduce the most often cited impacts of climate change, namely reductions in global temperature and sea level rise?”

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