“The president’s Climate Action Plan calls on federal agencies to take steady, sensible, and pragmatic steps to cut the harmful carbon pollution that fuels our changing climate, to prepare our communities for its unavoidable impacts, while continuing to provide affordable and reliable energy for all,” McCarthy said.
Her announcement, most of it leaked two days ago, was prefaced in her speech by an extensive, straightforward discussion of the realities of the environmental and health impacts of climate change that surely must have set on edge the teeth of those who deny it is actually happening. Indeed, the opposition began immediately:
Opponents of the new E.P.A. rule quickly vowed to take measures to stop it. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader and a senator from coal-dependent Kentucky, promised to use his legislative skills to prevent the measure.Given the nature of the crisis that has spurred the proposed standards into existence, a war on coal—though, of course, not on coal miners—is exactly what is required. We have to stop burning the stuff, the sooner the better. That's also true for natural gas, something viewed widely by experts as a transition fuel but seen by many environmental advocates as a snare and delusion even though when burned its emissions of CO2 are about half that of an equivalent amount of coal.
“The president’s decision today is an escalation of the war on coal and what that really means for Kentucky families is an escalation of his war on jobs and the Kentucky economy,” Mr. McConnell said. “I will file a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to ensure a vote to stop this devastating E.P.A. rule.”
The proposed standards would limit emissions of CO2 from new coal-fired plants to a level that many in the industry claim will make it impossible to build such facilities. New large natural gas-fired turbines would be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. New small natural gas-fired plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. New coal-fired units would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, and would have the option to meet a limit of 1,000-to-1,050 pounds if they choose to average emissions over seven years.
Although it varies widely from region to region, the average American residence consumes 11 megawatt-hours of electricity each year.
Please read below the fold for more analysis.
Currently, the newest coal-fired plants emit between 1,800 to 2,100 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour. The American Public Power Association, a group of publicly owned utilities, had argued at the beginning of this month for setting the new standards at 1,900 pounds. New natural gas plants already maintain emissions below the range the standard would set for them.
As controversial as the proposed new plant rule will certainly be, the one for existing plants will face tougher opposition still. Setting an emissions limit for those plants is in the works, with a preliminary rule expected in June of 2014. President Obama has said he wants that existing-plant standard implemented by the time he leaves office in January 2017. He sees standards for both new and existing plants as key to his commitment under the Climate Action Plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
Before being finalized, the new plant standards will undergo a 60-day public comment period. The EPA already has reviewed 2.5 million public comments on the standards. McCarthy said in her speech, "We did what democracy demands. We paid attention. We listened to those comments, and that is what today's proposal reflects." Technically speaking, the agency has until next fall to implement the new standards, but depending on how much resistance is launched, it could happen sooner.
The standards have technically been in the works since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had a mandate to control greenhouse emissions, including CO2 under the Clean Air Act.
Friday's announcement marks the Obama administration's second attempt at setting limits. The standards are more flexible than what was proposed 18 months ago when electricity-generating plants fueled by either coal or natural gas were slated to be held to the same limit. But the instant it was unveiled in March 2012, it collided with strong objections from politicians and the coal industry. Under this intense onslaught of criticism, the White House chose to hold off and revise the original proposal for fear of the damage and delay that industry lawsuits might do.
Even with the new, more flexible arrangement, industry opposition can be expected to be turned into litigation before the proposed limits go into effect. In Congress, there is significant right-wing opposition to any limits placed on greenhouse gas emissions. That's partly because nearly 60 percent of the House Republican caucus deny outright that climate change is happening at all or deny that it is caused by humans. And it's partly because many in Congress, including a couple of dozen Democrats, receive major campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, especially if they represent states rich in these resources.
In June, in the first major speech about climate change of his presidency, President Obama addressed industry complaints head on:
Now, what you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it. And the reason I know you'll hear those things is because that's what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children’s health. And every time, they've been wrong.A can-do spirit reflective of Obama's June speech infused McCarthy's announcement. "The argument that we must choose between economic growth and environmental protection is a false one," she said. Limiting emissions boost the economy, not be a burden on it, she said, adding that the sky will not fall. She noted that new automobile efficiency standards imposed by the Obama administration have not hamstrung that industry.
The only way most experts believe coal plants can possibly meet the standards is by
using carbon capture and storage—CCS. That's a technology McCarthy said is "proven."
"Carbon capture and sequestration technologies will eventually mature and will become as common in power plants as scrubbers are today," she said.
However, energy companies, most Republicans and some coal-state Democrats say the proposed standards for coal are too tough and no commercially available technology is ready or will be ready any time soon to meet them. They claim the proposed rules would make building new coal plants impossible and eliminate thousands of jobs in the coal-mining industry.
Carbon-capture and sequestration involves scrubbing coal, gas or oil before they are burned and then storing the CO2 underground or injecting it to recover oil from wells that are otherwise at the end of their productive life. A number of CCS demonstration projects are currently under way. But they've run into complications. A federally subsidized $4.7-billion CCS plant built by Southern Company in Kemper County, Mississippi, is already $1 billion over budget. Eco-critics say the whole idea is a will-o'-the-wisp and that the "clean coal" objective of such measures can't be met.
The Congressional Budget Office reported last year that CCS power plants will likely cost 75 percent more than regular coal-fired plants. Short of a major technological breakthrough that nobody sees in the immediate future, that cost is not likely to drop by much.
But there's another factor at work that could make the proposed standard for new coal plants moot. Cheap natural gas prices, combined with industry concerns about the proposed standards have already made building coal-fired generators an ever rarer occurrence. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, none of the 136 U.S. power plants that will open or expand its electricity-generating capacity in 2013 burns coal. And of the 127 plants on the calendar to open or expand in 2014, only two will burn coal.
As Josh Dzieza of the Daily Beast wrote this week:
If coal jobs are destroyed in the near future, it will more likely be the fault of natural gas companies than EPA regulations. Put another way, the practice of liberating natural gas from shale rock through hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is waging a war on coal.
Eco-activists strongly criticize fracking as well. It's been tied to water pollution, earthquakes, methane leaks and other problems, and it will certainly face extensive legal and other challenges in the years ahead. For now, however, the natural gas bonanza is having a tremendous impact on what now gets built to generate electricity in the United States. The top two contenders are wind turbines and natural gas turbines, with wind in the lead for the past two years.
Jessica Goad at ThinkProgress spotlighted the fact that when the Bureau of Land Management held a competitive lease sale for the Hay Creek II coal lease tract in Wyoming Wednesday, it was forced to reject the sole bid it received. This was $35 million from Kiewit Mining. That's just 21 cents a ton. Reuters reported that it was “the lowest top bid in 15 years." Goad wrote:
As Mark Northam of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources said of yesterday’s lease sale: “The bottom has just dropped out of the market … This represents a high degree of uncertainty about whether coal will stay robust in the future.”One positive reaction to the proposed new rule came from France Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a blog published on the organization's website, she wrote:
The Obama Administration struck a forceful blow against climate change today. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed standards that will limit dangerous carbon pollution from new power plants.That's an understandable bit of hyperbole after so many years pushing for the emissions standard. New electric power plants that emit any carbon dioxide do, in fact, endanger our health and add to the accumulated carbon already in the atmosphere. But the proposed standard does mark a serious, welcome move in the right direction.
No longer will new electric plants be allowed to endanger our health with unchecked carbon pollution and the climate change it causes. Instead, our nation can start creating a 21st century power fleet—one that uses the latest clean technologies and reduces the threat of climate change.
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VL Baker has post on the subject here.