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EPA Proposal on Power Plant Emissions May Be Regulation ‘Launching Point’

September 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to cut industry carbon pollution. Under new rules, new natural gas and coal-fired power plants would have to install technology to capture and store emissions. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post about what's on the agenda at the EPA.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We zero in now on the EPA’s decision to issue its first-ever curbs on power plant emissions. It’s all part of a bigger effort to reduce greenhouse gases, and it’s generating an intense reaction from both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

GINA MCCARTHY, Environmental Protection Agency: Climate change caused by carbon pollution is one of the most significant public health threats of our time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At the National Press Club in Washington, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the stakes are too great to wait to address climate change.

GINA MCCARTHY: Power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution. New power plants, both natural gas and coal-fired, can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of available modern technology. These technologies offer them a clear pathway forward today and in the long term.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Under the proposed rules, new power plants would have to install technology to capture and store carbon emissions. Natural gas plants would be limited to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, while coal-fired plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour.

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To put that in context, the most efficient plants running today emit about 1,800 pounds. But the

guidelines wouldn’t affect existing plants, which will be dealt with in a separate proposal next year. Last year, coal-fired plants were responsible for about a third of America’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and they supplied 37 percent of America’s power.

But nearly all climate scientists say CO2 helps trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, contributing to climate change. And in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act.

MAN: Coal generates electricity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Critics like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, have been campaigning to kill the new rules, saying they are costly for consumers and would prevent utilities from building plants.

CEO Mike Duncan issued this video statement:

MIKE DUNCAN,  American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity: These proposed regulations put America on a dangerous and economically destructive path. Coal is the dominant source of electricity in the United States. Those who believe it can be easily replaced are sticking their heads in the sand.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The proposed guidelines now enter a one-year comment period.

The industry says new technologies to store and capture carbon have never been tested on a wide scale. And it plans to take the matter to court.

Joining me now from The Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin, who has been covering the story.

 

So do they have a point? Is carbon sequestration or carbon capture a proven technology?

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: Well, it’s an interesting point.

Certainly, it’s proven it has worked in certain cases, but it hasn’t been applied commercially on a large scale. So in terms of does this technology actually function, absolutely. But has it been proven in a competitive marketplace? The answer is no.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We mentioned earlier that this particular rule wouldn’t affect existing coal plants. Why is the coal industry responding so vehemently now? Are there a lot of coal plants in the pipeline?

JULIET EILPERIN: There aren’t a lot of coal plants in the pipeline. And, in fact, a couple of them that are under construction are ones that are doing carbon capture and storage, such as a Kemper plant in Mississippi.

But they really see this as kind of two things, one, the nose under the camel’s tent, which is this is the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately the administration is moving forward and will be addressing existing plants.

And, also, while natural gas prices are very low, which is one of the reasons why people are building gas plants, rather than coal plants, obviously, market conditions can change and the coal industry doesn’t want to be constrained. They want an opportunity to compete in the future should the market shift dramatically and gas becomes more expensive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how does this fit with the president’s second-term agenda on global warming, on the environment?

JULIET EILPERIN: This is an important part of his agenda.

What you’re seeing here is really the most important domestic initiative that the president has taken in his second term, to use his own executive authority to tackle climate change. So this is the first step. Again, the EPA has made it clear that it’s going to move on and now tackle existing plants.

But what this shows is that there is a political commitment on the part of President Obama and his top deputies to really use the levers that they control where they don’t need Congress to address carbon emissions nationwide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does this particular rule change signal what will inevitably come to existing coal plants? Is it a slippery slope that the coal industry is trying to avoid?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, again, it shows that they are going to address this. Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, made it clear that people don’t necessarily have to read the tea leaves in this proposal to see what’s going to happen when they tackle existing plants.

Right now, in fact, she used this proposal as a launching point to say that EPA is going to reach out to, whether it’s the states, as well as utilities across the country to really begin the discussions about what will it look like to regulate existing plants, you know, going forward.

But, you know, it clearly shows that they are going to push the energy, that they are comfortable with the idea of using the Clean Air Act to drive the deployment of pollution control technology across the country in the power sector.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gina McCarthy also mentioned the public health aspect of this. How does that factor into this rule?

JULIET EILPERIN: I think that, you know, that’s certainly something that’s important, particularly in how the Obama administration frames this.

When you look at power plants, while this is addressing, again, the climate impact that they have, they are a major source of emissions that are linked to, for example, lung and heart disease, things like asthma. There are something like 30 million Americans who face some sort of lung disease that, you know, in some ways one can tie to power plants.

And so that’s something that they see as important. And one of the things that Gina McCarthy has been trying to do with the rollout of this proposal is talk about the connection between climate and public health. What people often talk about, for example, at the American Lung Association is the climate penalty, that, basically, as temperatures rise, all the conditions that we have ordinarily, including smog, become more intense and become more of a problem for Americans.

And so I think that it is an important way that, certainly, the administration will be making its case to the public of why this move is justified, despite the clear economic costs that come with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s likely to happen next in the courts?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, first — the first step is that this ruling needs to be finalized, and that will take a year. So the EPA will take comments on it. And then they will issue a final rule about a year from now.

Once that happens, I think you can expect to see attorneys head directly to federal court to challenge this. They will argue that it doesn’t meet the test under the Clean Air Act that this technology has been adequately demonstrated. And so you are going to see a court battle.

But that doesn’t mean that the rule won’t go ahead. Most likely, it will move ahead and then it will be up to a court to block it if it chooses to do so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Juliet Eilperin from The Washington Post, thanks so much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you.