EPA official won't rule out issuing climate rules for existing power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency’s top air official stressed Wednesday that the administration has “no plans” to issue regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

But, when pressed, Gina McCarthy, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, would not rule out eventually issuing the regulations, as environmental groups expect.

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McCarthy said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s comments Tuesday that the agency has “no plans” to issue the regulations were “very clear.”

“I can state that for the rest of the Obama administration, Lisa Jackson and the EPA are not going to issue regulations for existing power plants for greenhouse gas emissions?” asked Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), a top Republican on the committee.

“We just indicated that we have no plans,” McCarthy responded.

“For the rest of the Obama administration?” Barton asked.

“Right now we are focused solely on what we have already proposed, which is getting comment on the new source standard, which is the premise for moving forward,” McCarthy said.

“And should we go forward with [regulations for existing plants] in the future, that would definitely be a standard that would be established in a separate rulemaking.”

Barton didn’t buy McCarthy’s response.

“That’s like President Clinton saying it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is,” he said.

But, despite the EPA’s comments, environmental groups say they are confident the agency will indeed issue climate regulations for existing power plants. They note that Tuesday’s proposal for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from new plants explicitly cites future Clean Air Act rules for the existing fleet.

“[T]he Clean Air Act requires EPA to follow up with requirements for those sources too. The proposal acknowledges this responsibility,” said David Doniger, the policy director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NRDC is one of the groups that reached a settlement with EPA in 2010 that requires the power plant carbon rules.

“We look forward to reaching an agreement with EPA on a schedule for completing the standard for new sources and developing standards for existing sources,” Doniger said in an email.

In her testimony Wednesday, McCarthy defended EPA’s proposed climate regulations for new power plants, amid aggressive criticism from House Republicans.

“EPA is not preventing either the continued use or construction of new coal,” McCarthy said, after Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) alleged that the proposed regulations would make it almost impossible to build new coal plants.

McCarthy said plans for new coal plants had been set aside before EPA issued its regulations, noting that low natural gas prices are making it less economical to build new coal-fired facilities.

And she stressed that the agency is allowing flexibility for coal plants to comply with the regulations.

The rules 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.
 
Barton said CCS technology has not been proven economically feasible at a commercial scale.

“We believe that carbon capture and sequestration is actually being put on at scale now,” McCarthy said.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to you that many of us don’t share the optimism that you expressed,” Barton responded, noting that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Republicans float legislation to rollback the EPA’s climate rules for new power plants.

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