EPA releases draft rules to cut emissions from power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday released draft rules that represent the first limits for carbon emissions from new power plants. 

The new rules are a central component of President Obama's push to protect the environment through regulation and executive action, and will fuel a political fight with the coal lobby and its supporters on Capitol Hill. 

In offering the rules on Friday, the EPA quickly pushed back at arguments the rules represent an attack on coal, and that they will hurt the economy. 

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"We have proven time after time that setting fair Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said during a speech at the National Press Club unveiling the draft rules. "The economy does not crumble."

Opponents of the new rules have worried that they would require an expensive technology that would lead to an effective ban on coal power plants. But McCarthy said that the effort is aimed at just the opposite.

"I believe that this proposal, rather than killing future coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of a diverse mix in this country," she said. 

Together with regulations on power plants already up and running, which are set to be proposed next year, the rules form the centerpiece of what Obama described in a speech at Georgetown University as “bold action to reduce carbon pollution.”

In a statement, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, countered that the administration “is offering a costly, heavy-handed proposal that risks jobs and economic growth, all for negligible changes to our carbon dioxide emissions and no discernible impact on the global temperature.”

Power plants are the source of about one-third of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

On Friday, McCarthy said that reducing the amount of carbon pollution in the atmosphere would protect clean air, drinkable water, the world's food supply and reduce the amount of extreme weather across the globe.

“The overwhelming judgment of science tells us that climate change is real, that human activities are fueling that change and we must take action to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change,” she said. “We all know this is not just about melting glaciers. Climate change caused by carbon pollution is one of the most significant public health threats of our time.”

The new rules require plants to use a technology that captures and stores a large amount of carbon emissions.

Energy companies and Republican lawmakers have said that the technology is not commercially available and is too expensive to require it for all new power plants. Mandating the technology would amount to an effective ban on new coal power plants, they have asserted.

“The regulation announced today by EPA effectively bans coal from America’s power portfolio, leaving new power plants equipped with even the most efficient and environmentally advanced technologies out in the cold,” Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement. “By forcing power plants to abandon the use of the nation’s largest and most reliable source of affordable electricity, EPA is recklessly gambling with the nation’s energy and economic future.”

McCarthy and supporters of new rules deny that it would be too difficult for plants to use the technology.

"[Carbon capture and sequestration] is a technology that is feasible, and it’s available today," she said. "It’s been demonstrated to be effective. We know that it’s been demonstrated, and it’s being actually constructed on real facilities today."

McCarthy added that requiring the carbon capture and storage technology will yield “investments” in the technologies, which “will eventually mature and become as common for new power plants as scrubbers have become for well-controlled existing plants today.” Scrubbers are pollution reduction devices. 

Environmentalists called the new proposal common sense and critical to protect the environment and public health alike

“Carbon pollution is already increasing rates of asthma attacks and extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts nationwide,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement.

“Any attempts by Congress to block implementation of these limits would go against the majority of Americans who support these common sense steps and would only benefit the country’s biggest polluters.”

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to thwart the EPA’s rules, but he was quickly blocked by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

The new regulations include different standards for power plants that burn coal and those that burn natural gas, with a tighter standard for large natural gas facilities, which tend to emit less carbon. They also include a less strict threshold for smaller natural gas plants and flexibility for coal plants that average emissions over multiple years.

The effort is the Obama administration’s second stab at regulations on the amount of carbon pollution power plants can emit. The EPA floated draft rules in 2012 that also called for carbon reduction technology in all new plants, but that proposal is being rescinded with Friday’s release.