- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2014

In dealing a major blow to U.S. coal on Monday, President Obama very well may have tipped the scales in favor of domestic natural gas even more.

Rules put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday call on states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over the next 15 years.

To accomplish that goal, the administration is steering the nation toward natural gas and away from coal, which spews much higher levels of carbon, to generate electricity.

Mr. Obama specifically cited natural gas as an option, along with cleaner coal and renewable sources.

In a conference call hosted by public health advocacy groups, the president said the 645-page rule is necessary to preserve the planet for future generations. He said the regulation would result in billions of dollars in savings by improving public health and mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change.

“This is something that is important for all of us — as parents, as grandparents, as citizens, as folks who care about the health of our families and also want to make sure that generations are able to enjoy this beautiful blue ball in the middle of space that we’re a part of,” the president said.

SEE ALSO: Kentucky’s Grimes takes swing at Obama’s new coal rules

Analysts said natural gas is the most logical way to meet the EPA targets, barring some major shift in the market.

Mr. Obama, an ardent supporter of renewable energy, was viewed skeptically by the oil and gas sector during his first years in office. With the EPA regulations, however, he may have helped gas become the nation’s dominant fuel for years to come.

“Natural gas is the obvious, most likely path here,” said Bruce Huber, associate professor at Notre Dame Law School who specializes in environmental and energy law. “The major asterisk to that is these markets have a way of changing exceedingly fast. Things could change pretty rapidly.”

Gas boom

For now, embracing natural gas seems to be the easiest way for states to meet the EPA goals, the most sweeping step the administration has taken to date as part of its larger “climate action plan.”

The administration predicts that the amount of electricity generated by natural gas will increase substantially by 2030. The fuel currently provides about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Coal still provides more than 35 percent of electricity, but that number has fallen gradually as natural gas emerges as a leading fuel source.

The technological improvements in hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique known as fracking, coupled with the discovery of huge deposits in places such as the Marcellus Shale, have radically transformed America’s natural gas sector.

Not even a decade ago, analysts projected that the U.S. would continue to import natural gas. Now, the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation on Earth.

Environmentalists argue that fracking carries its own risks to public health and water supplies, but the administration gradually has embraced the technique, largely because U.S. carbon emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years as natural gas use has increased.

The carbon emissions limits apply to natural gas power plants, but those facilities emit much less pollution than do their coal-fired counterparts. Natural gas, industry and administration officials say, therefore is a key part of making the EPA plan work.

“As we consider EPA’s proposal with our members and with our power generation customers, we agree the rules should be flexible and fair and we believe they should recognize the ability of natural gas to play an increasing role in the delivery of reliable, safe and clean power,” said Marty Durbin, president and CEO of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which represents gas exploration and production companies.

The EPA plans to issue a final rule within 12 months. After that, states will have until June 30, 2016, to develop specific plans.

Other options

The administration also identified other alternatives, including regional “cap and trade” systems that require companies to pay for emissions they produce.

Among the multiple options laid out by the agency, states could improve efficiency at existing coal facilities, add more renewable power generation, and implement “innovative, cost-effective regulatory strategies.”

The president and administration officials such as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and White House counselor John Podesta were out in full force Monday to sell the plan.

They rebutted arguments that the EPA rules would drive up energy bills and cost thousands of jobs by shutting down coal-fired plants.

“It provides a huge incentive for the states and consumers to become more energy efficient. As a result, your electricity bills will shrink as these standards spur investment in energy efficiency, cutting waste and, ultimately, we’re going to be saving money for homes and for businesses,” Mr. Obama said. “I promise you, you will hear from critics who say the same thing they always say, that these guidelines will kill jobs or crush the economy. And it doesn’t happen because once we have a clear target to meet, we typically meet it.”

Critics on both sides of the political aisle and some power providers dispute the administration’s claim that average electric bills will shrink by at least 8 percent as a result of the EPA plan.

“The proposed rules released by the EPA will likely lead to increases in our member-owners’ monthly electric bills — the question is how much,” said Marion Denger, president of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, echoing sentiments by dozens of other lawmakers and organizations across the country.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who hails from heavily coal-reliant Kentucky, called the EPA proposal “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”

“The sad truth is that the only thing America will lead in if these rules go into effect is the unilateral dismantling of our own economic supremacy and the self-imposed destruction of one of our nation’s main competitive advantages in the global economy,” he said in a statement.

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