House to investigate legality of EPA’s coal plant ban

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are launching an investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule that would effectively ban coal-fired power plants.

Lawmakers are looking to see how the EPA justified mandating that new coal plants install carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in order to be built. Such requirements, lawmakers argue, violate federal law and the technology is not commercially viable.

“At this time, we seek information to evaluate EPA’s adherence to statutory obligations and responsibilities, including adherence to the relevant statutory prohibitions relating to the consideration of certain facilities and technologies receiving federal assistance under the Energy Policy Act of 2005,” write Republican lawmakers, including E&C Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, in a letter to the EPA.

Republicans have been questioning the EPA over its CCS mandate that runs up against the Environmental Policy Act of 2005. This Bush-era law states that the EPA may not use federally-funded projects to prove a technology is commercially proven — which is what the EPA did in its regulatory analysis.

The EPA cited four power plants as proof that CCS — which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants — is viable on a commercial scale. The agency has repeatedly testified on this point as well.

But the EPA’s regulatory documents for its rule on carbon emissions from new power plants cites three federally-funded CCS power plant projects and one project that was backed by the Canadian government. Only one project, the AEP Mountaineer power plant, has some CCS — but it did not get past the pilot project phase. There are currently no operating commercial-scale coal plants using CCS in the U.S.

The coal industry argues that CCS is not technologically feasible on a commercial scale and would raise prices for consumers, something which even the Energy Department acknowledged in front of Congress.

Dr. Julio Friedmann, the deputy assistant secretary for clean coal at the Department of Energy, told House lawmakers that first generation CCS technology would boost wholesale electricity prices by “70 or 80 percent.”

“The precise number will vary, but for first generation we project $70-90 per ton (on the wholesale price of electricity),” Friedmann said. “For second generation, it will be more like a $40-50/ton price. Second generation of demonstrations will begin in a few years, but won’t be until middle of the next decade (2022-2025) that we will have lessons learned and cost savings.”

Democrats have backed the EPA’s rule to limit carbon emissions, despite the electricity price spikes, saying they are a crucial part of fighting global warming.

“Without a mandate we’re not going to get carbon pollution controls on coal,” said California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman.

“It is unlikely that they would deploy CCS technology,” Friedmann agreed, adding that EPA regulations are needed to make CCS financially tolerable.

“In typical EPA fashion, they’re putting the cart before the horse to advance their environmental policy agenda,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter. “They’re moving forward with a controversial rule to regulate carbon based on technology that isn’t commercially available. Not only is this wrongheaded, it’s beyond the scope of their legal authority.”

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