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Plants’ CO2 emissions next likely target for EPA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With President Obama promising more action during his second term to curb climate change, observers and experts are increasingly predicting that the next likely step for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a move to reduce greenhouse emissions from existing power plants.

Three weeks ago, Obama highlighted climate change in his inaugural address. Tuesday night, he'll get an opportunity to push the issue again, and perhaps provide more specifics, in his State of the Union address.

The president could use part of the speech to promote an EPA rule on existing power plants -- as The Wall Street Journal predicted last week he would -- or the administration could delay action until later this year, as industry officials believe is more likely.

Either way, such an EPA proposal would face fierce opposition in West Virginia. Political and business leaders generally prefer to ignore climate change or dispute that it's happening, and instead battle to avoid tougher regulations that impact the coal industry.

Some in the environmental community are hoping to at least partially blunt West Virginia's opposition, though, with a proposal they say would allow utilities to meet tough carbon dioxide limits through a variety of measures, including increased efficiency of power plants and the homes and businesses they serve.

The Natural Resources Defense Council proposed its plan in December, calling for federal/state partnerships that would provide industry with flexibility, yet also meet emissions reduction goals.

"There are lots of opportunities for a state like West Virginia to embrace this challenge, rather than try to put all of its efforts into trying to hold back the tide of history," said the NRDC's David Hawkins.

Under the proposal, existing power plants could reduce emissions by improving their generation efficiency, co-firing with lesser-polluting natural gas or biomass, or by increasing end-use electrical efficiency. Utilities also could run lower-emitting plants more and higher-emitting plants less, the proposal says.

The NRDC said its proposal would cut carbon pollution from the nation's existing power plants 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025. At a cost of about $4 billion in 2020, the proposal could save Americans between $25 billion and $60 billion in lives saved, avoided illnesses and reduced climate change, the NRDC said.

Most scientists recommend that the nation -- and the world -- needs to swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them dramatically to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

The Obama administration has been moving toward regulating greenhouse gases under a July 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated action if the agency's scientists concluded those emissions were endangering public health and welfare. In fact, the EPA already has missed the deadline of a legal settlement that required it to issue a final power plant emissions-reduction rule by May 2012.

Last March, the EPA proposed a rule to generally require new power plants to limit their carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Coal-fired power plants could meet that limit -- less than half of their average current emissions -- only by using carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

Some critics among advocates for action on climate change said the Obama EPA's rule didn't go far enough. They wanted a tougher standard, and the especially wanted the EPA to also propose limits for existing coal-fired power plants, which account for nearly 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions.

In his inaugural address on Jan. 21, Obama promised that his administration would "respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms," the president said. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult, but America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it."

Nancy Gravatt, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said her group agrees with Obama that the United States "cannot cede to other nations" the technologies that will power the future, and said those technologies need to include advanced coal-fired power plants. Gravatt said, though, that her group believes that consideration of greenhouse limits for existing plants remains "some time off."

A spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who has offered a more moderate voice on coal-related issues , said that Rockefeller continues to believe it is better for Congress -- rather than the EPA -- to address climate change.

"Congress has more options and can include incentives for new technology and transition assistance and flexibilities that are not available to [the] EPA under the existing law," said Rockefeller spokesman Andrew Beckner.

Beckner said Rockefeller "has also opposed efforts to permanently strip the EPA of its regulatory authority" over greenhouse gases "unless Congress is replacing that authority with a balance climate program."

Last week, the World Resources Institute reported that the United States needs to address emissions from existing power plants if the nation is to meet its international commitment to cut greenhouse emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"Climate change impacts in the United States are increasingly evident and come with steep economic and social costs," the group said. "The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events has increased in recent years, bringing record-breaking heat, heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, severe droughts and damaging wildfires. The mounting costs convey an unmistakable urgency to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

While the World Resources Institute said that broader climate change legislation will eventually be needed, it also urged the EPA to "immediately pursue" reductions from existing coal plants under current law.

In its December proposal, the NRDC said the EPA could set state-specific carbon emission rates that would vary, depending on the existing mix of electricity generation fuels. States could then come up with their own plans for meeting those emission guidelines or could simply allow the EPA to take over the task.

Under the proposal, power plant owners would have the freedom to choose how they would achieve required emissions reductions. The proposal gives them credit for increases in energy efficiency and use of renewable sources, and allows emissions averaging among multiple power plants.

Still, the NRDC proposal projects more closures of coal-fired power plants -- about 52 gigawatts of coal capacity retired through 2020, on top of closures already anticipated.

However, the proposal also allows for deployments of carbon capture and storage technology that would control carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Coal industry officials say the rules that would require plants to have CCS are unfair because the technology isn't ready to be more widely deployed at plants around the country. The NRDC report notes, however, that Congress intended Clean Air Act emissions rules to be "technology forcing" -- to provide incentives for industries to work toward new ways to prevent and control emissions.

"We are overturning the conventional wisdom that reducing carbon pollution through the Clean Air Act would be ineffective and expensive," said Daniel Lashoff, the NRDC's director of climate and clean air programs. "We show that [the] EPA can work with states and power companies to make large pollution reductions, by setting system-wide standards, rather than smokestack-by-smokestack ones, and by giving power companies and states the freedom to choose the most cost-saving means of compliance."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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