San Francisco and Seattle are synonymous with the environmental movement, not coal mining — but that hasn't stopped the Obama administration from holding "listening sessions" in those and other major metropolitan areas to hear questions, concerns and complaints about its new global-warming regulations.
The meetings, hosted at Environmental Protection Agency regional offices across the nation, including one at its D.C. office Thursday, are part of the administration's public outreach campaign as it implements harsh new limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
Those regulations — which already have been released for future plants and are under development for existing facilities — are expected to have devastating impacts on coal plants, which simply can't meet the standards with currently available, financially feasible technology.
The rules are expected to have a spillover effect on the mining industry, as demand for the fuel would decrease as U.S. power-generation facilities are forced to close.
While the EPA paints itself as open to all points of view, critics say the agency is intentionally avoiding towns that rely heavily on coal mining, or those that rely on coal-fired power plants to support their local economy.
"As the listening session tour concludes, it is increasingly clear EPA never wanted to listen in the first place," said Laura Sheehan, senior vice president of communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "These listening sessions are just one more example of an administration that continues to exclude from its rule-making process the millions of Americans who stand to lose the most."
The sessions continued Thursday at EPA offices in Seattle, Dallas and Washington. On Friday, the agency will host meetings in Philadelphia and Chicago, the final stops on its tour.
Events also have been held in New York City, Chicago, Denver and other major cities.
The EPA has pushed back against charges it wants to avoid critics and minimize the complaints from coal proponents and the power-generation sector. Agency officials say they've actively reached out to and maintained a working relationship with the fossil-fuels sector while writing new climate-change regulations.
"We've been working with everyone," said Janet McCabe, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, at the beginning of Thursday's session in Washington. "We're doing this because we want to be open to any and all information about what is important to each state and stakeholder. That's what this process is all about."
The current round of sessions specifically are focused on upcoming EPA rules that would govern existing power plants. Those regulations will have a disproportionate effect on coal, which provides about 40 percent of U.S. electricity and remains a key part of economies across Appalachia, the Midwest and elsewhere.
Two months ago, the agency released new guidelines for future power plants, a central component of President Obama's ambitious second-term global-warming agenda.
The regulations limit coal facilities to no more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, a figure that analysts say simply can't be met in a remotely cost-effective way with today's technology.
Those concerns have been raised many times, but they would be brought directly to EPA leaders if the agency visited mining towns and areas dependent on coal, critics say.
Members of Congress from West Virginia and elsewhere have invited the EPA to towns in their home states, with the goal of putting faces to the lost jobs the agency likely will cause if it moves forward with current proposals.
Thus far, the agency has instead relied only on sessions at its regional headquarters.
"EPA seems to be going out of its way during its listening tour to avoid those states that rely on coal the most for electricity," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee on Energy and Power. "EPA needs to come to coal country and hear from the workers, families and communities that may suffer the most from the agency's actions."
A proposal to limit carbon emissions from existing plants is scheduled to be released next summer, the EPA said. Rules for new power plants are currently open to public comment and will be finalized in the coming months.
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