Federal controls target greenhouse gas emissions

The Obama administration's announcement of first-ever federal controls on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants elicited expected opposition Monday from many in the coal and electric power industries and from state Republican leadership.

Widespread support was voiced by environmental and public health organizations, though some said the administration's attempt to balance political reality against the science of climate change did not go far enough.

The rules released Monday would cut carbon emissions from power plants -- the single largest source of carbon pollution that contributes to climate change -- by 30 percent from 2005 levels. They also would cut airborne particle emissions by more than 25 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits.

Those health benefits in 2030 include avoidance of an estimated 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 childhood asthma attacks, and 490,000 missed days of work or school.

The EPA said the rules also would shrink electricity bills by approximately 8 percent, by reducing demand and increasing efficiency.

Making the announcement in Washington, D.C., EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said climate change "supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life," and the administration's Clean Power Plan addresses those risks with flexibility that will "sharpen America's competitive edge, spur innovation, and create jobs."

She said the new rules take a first significant step toward reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases from the nation's largest sources and will complement health-based limits already in place on pollutants such as mercury, sulfur and arsenic.

"For the sake of our families' health and our kids' future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate," she said. "The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction keep piling up."

The EPA will accept comment on the proposed rules for 120 days, following publication in the Federal Register, and will hold four public hearings during the week of July 28 in Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The rules will not be finalized until next year and expected legal challenges from the electric power, coal industry and even some states could delay implementation for years.

The EPA's 645-page proposal requires a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from Pennsylvania power plants by 2030 from 2012 levels.

Pennsylvania power plants put out 48 percent of the state's carbon pollution, according to the EPA. "Power plants account for 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the U.S. and many of those power plants are in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, fouling our air and damaging public health," said Cindy Dunn, president and chief executive officer of PennFuture, a statewide environmental organization. "The fossil fuel industry's chokehold on power generation in the U.S. has us choking on bad air."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., emphasized the importance of clean air quality as well as the state's continuing efforts toward carbon reduction and a healthier environment. "We have an obligation to minimize the impacts of climate change while moving towards energy independence and creating jobs across the Commonwealth," Mr. Casey said. "No one understands better than Pennsylvanians what can happen if we don't take appropriate steps to protect our air and water."

Gov. Tom Corbett said the state is reviewing the EPA's proposal, but expressed concern that it could result in the shut down of "hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country" and the loss of thousands of jobs.

"In Pennsylvania, nearly 63,000 men and women, including 8,100 miners, work in jobs supported by the coal industry," Mr. Corbett said in a written statement. "Anything that seeks to or has the effect of shutting down coal-fired power plants is an assault on Pennsylvania jobs, consumers, and those citizens who rely upon affordable, abundant domestic energy."

Jacob Smeltz, president of the Electric Power Generation Association, a Harrisburg trade group, said he has "hope that Pennsylvania will be able to navigate a path forward."

"We had specifically asked the EPA to create a program that would give maximum flexibility to allow the states to be in the driver's seat in creating compliance strategies," Mr. Smeltz said. "I think some of those concerns have been reflected in the rule. ... I'm cautiously optimistic."

But, contrary to the EPA projections, he predicted electric power prices will rise. The National Mining Association issued a statement saying the proposal is unrealistic for industry and puts the electric power supply at risk.

"EPA's previous power plant rules have pushed our nation's electric grid close to the edge of breaking, as we saw this past winter, and this new rule could finally break it. This is a major gamble that America cannot afford to make," said Hal Quinn, NMA president and chief executive officer.

And Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., condemned the EPA proposal as costly and attributing the new rules to the administration's "war on coal."

But studies cited by the Resources for the Future, a nonprofit environment research organization, found that EPA's likely approaches for regulating carbon emissions "will result in minimal price increases for consumers."

And Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the EPA, by including energy efficiency in its proposal, has "created a path for states to lower consumer energy bills through modest investments." According to EPA estimates, Pennsylvania's energy demand savings could be as much as 4.6 percent in 2020, 9.4 percent in 2025 and 12 percent by 2030.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies whose members will develop control plans to meet the greenhouse gas targets, said the proposal "provides states and localities with an ability to tailor their programs to the unique characteristics of their individual economies" and gives them credit for past actions to reduce emissions.

Harold P. Wimmer, American Lung Association president and chief executive officer, said the rules will prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks in the first year they are in place.

"Cleaning up carbon pollution will have an immediate, positive impact on public health; particularly for those who suffer from chronic diseases like asthma, heart disease or diabetes," he said. First Energy spokeswoman Stephanie Walton said the Akron, Ohio-based company believes it's in a "strong position" to meet the proposed federal requirements.

"We expect that our CO2 reductions will be 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2015," Ms. Walton said, adding that the regulations "use an appropriate baseline year of 2005 and gives an adequate compliance timeline."

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a 300,000-member public interest nonprofit, noted that the U.S. energy sector has already made significant carbon emissions reductions, from 2,417 million metric tons in 2005 to 2,053 in 2013, without the "apocalyptic effects" predicted by industries. That also shows how modest the emissions reduction goals are, he said.

"If our policy debates were guided by science and evidence, rather than 'Big Money' and partisan positioning," he said, "the noisy criticism of the EPA rule would come not from those bemoaning a tyrannical mandate, but those demanding much more aggressive action."

Additional information on the EPA Clean Power Plan can be found at http://www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. Stephanie Ritenbaugh and Yanan Wang contributed. First Published June 2, 2014 1:27 PM

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