The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed the first-ever standards to cut carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants -- a move welcomed by environmentalists but criticized by some utilities as well as Republicans, who are expected to use it as election campaign fodder
This coal-fired power plant is used by the city of Chicago, which last month decided to close it down by the end of 2014. A second coal plant will be closed by the end of this year. Chicago is the only large U.S. city with coal-fired power plants operating within its city limits. M. Spencer Green / AP
"Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies -- and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow," Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.
While the proposed rules do not dictate which fuels a plant can burn, they would require any new coal plants essentially to halve carbon dioxide emissions to match those of plants fired by natural gas.
The proposed standards have divided the power industry between companies that have moved toward natural gas, such as Exelon and NextEra, and those that generate most of their power from coal, such as Southern Co. and American Electric Power.
Record low prices for natural gas and the looming air rules already have pushed many companies to put older coal plants into retirement.
"There are areas where they could have made it a lot worse," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies. Still, "the numerical limit allows progress for natural gas and places compliance out of reach for coal-fired plants" not planning to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas.
Steve Miller, CEO and President of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group of coal-burning electricity producers, took a more dismal view, saying it "will make it impossible to build any new coal-fueled power plants and could cause the premature closure of many more coal-fueled power plants operating today."
Other opponents of the long-delayed EPA proposal say it will limit sources for electricity by making coal prohibitively expensive.
"This rule is part of the Obama administration's aggressive plan to change America's energy portfolio and eliminate coal as a source of affordable, reliable electricity generation," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has led the charge against environmental regulations. "EPA continues to overstep its authority and ram through a series of overreaching regulations in it attacks on America's power sector."
Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have claimed that Obama-era rules affecting power plants in recent years could cause blackouts. Numerous studies and an Associated Press survey of power plant operators have shown that is not the case.
Environmentalists were quick to welcome the proposals, which will be finalized after an undetermined period that will include public comments.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it a "historic step ... toward protecting the most vulnerable among us — including the elderly and our children — from smog worsened by carbon-fueled climate change."
The American Lung Association agreed. "Scientists warn that the buildup of carbon pollution will create warmer temperatures which will increase the risk of unhealthful smog levels," said board chairman Albert Rizzo. "More smog means more childhood asthma attacks and complications for those with lung disease."
The proposed rules would affect only new plants, not existing plants, which was a concession to industry. In addition, they would not apply to units that will start construction within the next 12 months.
Still, the proposals could set the stage for the EPA to regulate existing plants in the coming years.
The EPA is moving forward on the climate rules, which do not need approval by Congress, after a wide-ranging climate bill died in the Senate in 2010.
The proposal, which was due to be released last July but was held up at the White House, stemmed from a settlement with environmental groups and states. The government already controls global warming pollution at the largest industrial sources, has adopted the first-ever standards for new cars and trucks and is working on regulations to reduce greenhouse gases at existing power plants and refineries.