Three months after President Obama vowed to get tough on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday begins that mission by announcing long-awaited rules for new power plants that, while slightly watered down, will be tough on the beleaguered coal industry.
The regulations, under development for two years and recently finalized, set harsh limits on carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power-generation facilities and could, critics argue, eventually spell doom for American fossil fuels.
It’s the first major action in the White House’s broad climate change agenda, cited by the president as one of his top second-term priorities. New guidelines on existing plants are likely to be announced next year.
Taken together, the moves could spur a dramatic shift in American energy and power generation, with Friday’s announcement serving as a first step toward the ultimate goal, analysts say.
“What this rule is — it’s a foot in the door to end coal, but not only that, to end natural gas as well,” said Daniel Simmons, director of regulatory and state affairs at the conservative Institute for Energy Research.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is expected to announce regulations Friday morning that will be less stringent than previous proposals. Earlier drafts, for example, limited coal-fired power plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.
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The updated regulations could allow coal plants as much as 1,400 pounds per megawatt hour, some analysts predict.
The rules also will establish emissions restrictions on natural gas facilities, though they will not be nearly as harsh as those on coal.
Natural gas plants likely will be able to meet EPA limits, at least in the immediate future.
Concessions for coal backers
Ms. McCarthy and other members of the president’s energy and environment team changed the coal requirements after meeting with coal proponents, who urged the administration to scale back its approach. Coal-state lawmakers, including Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, also have pleaded with the White House to relax its environmental goals.
Although the new figures look better on paper, analysts say, they are virtually impossible to achieve with commercially available, affordable technology.
“Despite our pleas for a common-sense approach, every indication is that the EPA will proceed down a path that will put a de facto ban on the construction of new coal plants, and thus stop the development of clean-coal technologies,” said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
‘Green’ agenda stalls
In the shadows of the EPA decision, the backlash to Mr. Obama’s agenda on climate change continues to grow.
Mr. Manchin this week became the first Democrat to oppose the president’s choice for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Ron Binz. A clean-energy advocate from Colorado, Mr. Binz is in danger of being blocked by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee because of his perceived hostility toward coal.
Mr. Manchin and other Democrats also are becoming increasingly critical of the president’s handling of energy-related issues.
Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Begich of Alaska appeared with Republicans at an event Thursday commemorating five years of delay on the administration’s decision to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. They said it is time for Mr. Obama to approve the project or Congress will act to force the president’s hand.
“It is time to make this decision,” Ms. Heitkamp said. “Once this decision is made, if it’s not made in a way that Congress agrees with, I think they’ll probably hear about it.”
Mr. Obama might approve Keystone, but he has made no secret of his belief that coal’s share of the U.S. energy portfolio must be reduced.
Mr. Obama famously said during his 2008 presidential campaign that companies would go bankrupt if they tried to build coal-fired plants under his watch.
Administration officials have attempted to walk back that declaration over the past few years and reassure skeptics that coal — which provides about 40 percent of U.S. electricity — will remain a part of the mix.
“We believe coal will continue to represent a significant portion of the energy supply in the decades to come,” Ms. McCarthy told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday.
She also defended her agency’s ability and justification to carry out the president’s climate change agenda.
“We’re not doing anything at the EPA or in the climate plan that goes outside the boundaries of what Congress has said is our mission and our authority,” she said.
More rules in the pipeline
Pursuing its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions — which have been dropping because of market forces, such as the near-record low prices of cleaner-burning natural gas — the administration will take even more dramatic steps next year.
The first likely will be onerous restrictions on existing power plants, expected to be announced as early as next spring.
Friday’s announcement, by Ms. McCarthy’s own acknowledgment, won’t have a major impact on carbon dioxide emissions in the short term but regulations to come are likely to have more bite.
“This is just one of many actions that are being taken at various levels of government. Combined, they can have an impact on domestic CO2 emissions. But, again, it largely depends on what the EPA and the states do next when they’re regulating existing sources,” said Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University.
Ms. McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other administration officials argue that the coal industry simply needs to embrace carbon-capture technology, which traps harmful emissions before they are released into the air. Doing so would allow coal facilities to meet new EPA limits.
Such technology exists but is cost-prohibitive for companies to install. It is expected to become more affordable in the future, but not soon enough to keep up with EPA regulations.
“It’s a tomorrow technology, or a next-decade technology,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s incredibly expensive and hasn’t really been worked out in a large-scale plant.”