The 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. The EPA already has missed the deadline for a legal settlement that required it to issue a final power plant emissions-reduction rule by May 2012.
Last March, the EPA proposed the emissions limits for new power plants and, three months ago, in a June speech, Obama promised that the agency would finalize that rule this month. Then, the EPA will move forward with carbon dioxide limits for existing plants, issuing a proposal by June 2014 and finalizing those limits by June 2015.
The rules will cover all electricity-generating stations, which are the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse emissions. While the rules almost certainly would be tougher on coal plants -- because burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas -- it's not clear exactly what the EPA rules will say.
Some in the industry are waiting to see the fine print before jumping to harshly criticize the EPA.
"We are watching this very closely, but don't have anything else to add until we see the details," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.
In its proposed rule for new plants, the EPA said current energy economics make it very unlikely that any new coal-fired plants will be built between now and 2030, regardless of the carbon dioxide rules. However, the EPA said, developers that want to build coal plants could meet the proposed rule by deploying CCS to capture half of their CO2 emissions at start-up or through later application of more efficient carbon capture.
Four years ago, when American Electric Power launched a new CCS test project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, West Virginia political leaders touted it as proof that the technology works. After being awarded $334 million in federal money to expand the CCS testing, though, AEP backed out of the project. The company cited, among other reasons, the lack of a federal regulatory requirement to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Van Nostrand said an EPA mandate would allow a utility to "make a much stronger case" to recover the costs of installing CCS, although companies still would have to show that such an investment makes sense compared to other options for providing power to their customers.
Richardson said regardless of what happens with CCS, every projection he's seen shows that Southern West Virginia coal production will continue to decline. Coal production in the state's northern counties is in better shape, he said, but action is needed to help the southern counties with the transition.
"It's really critical that we as a state imagine ourselves as more than just coal," Richardson said last week. "That doesn't denigrate our past. We have a very proud history, but we have to expand our idea of what is possible."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.