EPA proposes first-ever greenhouse gas regulations for new power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed first-ever national standards Tuesday to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, dealing perhaps a final blow to efforts to build more coal-fired facilities in the United States.

The long-awaited regulations are aimed at reducing pollution blamed for climate change, which the vast majority of the world’s scientists say is occurring in large part because of the burning of fossil fuels such as coal. Scientists warn that climate change is threatening public health and the environment.

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The proposed rules set up an election-year clash between President Obama and Republicans — both in Congress and on the campaign trail. Opponents of the regulations, which include some coal-state Democrats, say the rules would burden the economy and cost jobs.

“Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies — and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

“We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids.” 

Anticipating intense pushback from Republicans and industry groups, EPA insisted Tuesday that the regulations are “practical, flexible and achievable.”

“EPA’s proposed standard reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants, including new, clean‐burning, efficient natural gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants,” the agency said in a summary of the proposal.

The regulations would require new power plants that burn fossil fuels to release no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt‐hour.

The agency said new natural-gas plants will be able to meet the standard without adding any additional technology. But new coal plants would need to add new technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS), in which carbon dioxide emissions are collected and sequestered in the ground rather than released into the atmosphere.

The rules give new coal-fired power plants flexibility to meet the standard. Instead of meeting the standard on an annual basis, new coal plants that use CCS can use a 30-year average of their carbon dioxide emissions, according to EPA.

The proposed standards come as many plans to build new coal plants have been waylaid by competition from inexpensive natural gas — which is undergoing a production boom — and other factors.

Environmentalists applauded the rules, calling them the nail in the coffin for new conventional coal plants.

“The new standard reinforces what most power company executives and investors already understand — that carbon pollution and climate change are serious concerns, and that if and when new coal plants make a comeback, they will need to be designed with [carbon capture and storage],” said David Doniger, the policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate program, on the group’s blog.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune was more blunt. He told Bloomberg that the rules “will make it nearly impossible to build a new coal plant,” and added that because the market has been moving that way, the rule “captured the end of an era.”

The rules drew quick criticism from industry groups. The National Mining Association immediately called on Congress to scuttle the plans.

“Volatile natural gas prices will, once again, expose millions of households to higher utility bills, threaten hundreds of thousands of workers with unemployment and weaken both the competitiveness of basic industries and the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid,” said the group's CEO, Hal Quinn.

The GOP-led House already passed legislation last year that would scuttle EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but the measures have not advanced in the Senate, where Democrats have a majority

While the rules generated quick attacks, an even bigger battle could ensue over standards for existing plants. But Jackson told reporters Tuesday that the agency has "no plans" to issue climate rules for existing plants.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the Senate’s most vocal climate change skeptics, vowed to kill the regulations using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to block final agency regulations.

“An overwhelming number of Senators have insisted they want to rein in the Obama-EPA,” Inhofe said in a statement.

"The CRA I will introduce will give them the opportunity to decide whether they will stand with President Obama and his destructive war on affordable energy, or their constituents back home," he continued, "who will suffer the most from hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and the skyrocketing electricity and gas prices this agenda will impose on them."

The administration rolled out the regulatory proposal with little fanfare Tuesday and President Obama — who is in South Korea at nuclear security summit — did not issue a statement about the regulation. 

In contrast, when EPA issued final regulations to control power plant mercury emissions and other toxics in December, Obama praised that rule as a major public health protection while touting White House efforts to ensure it doesn’t affect electricity reliability.

And Jackson announced the December regulation at a high-profile, multi-speaker press conference at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The forum for Tuesday’s announcement: A shorter conference call Jackson held with reporters.

To be sure, the December rollout of rules to curb mercury and other toxics is an imprecise parallel to EPA’s Tuesday climate announcement, which involved only a draft regulation.

Nonetheless, whether by accident or design, the administration announced the power plant rule on a day when official Washington was turning to other matters.

Tuesday brought arguably the most important day in the landmark Supreme Court battle over Obama’s signature healthcare law as justices considered whether the so-called individual mandate passes constitutional muster. 

This story was updated at 3:34 p.m. and at 4:50 p.m.

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