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EPA issues new rule on greenhouse gas emissions: Where does that leave coal?

The EPA proposed the first-ever US curbs on power plants' greenhouse gas emissions, saying next-generation coal plants should meet the restrictions. But the coal industry slammed the new rule.

By Staff writer / March 27, 2012

The American Electric Power Company's cooling tower at their coal-burning Mountaineer plant in New Haven, W.V. is shown in this 2009 photo. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed long-delayed rules that limit emissions from all new US power station, effectively barring the building of any new coal plants.

Ayesha Rascoe/Reuters/Files

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The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed the nation’s first-ever restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from US power plants. If approved, the restrictions are expected to sharply curb construction of new coal-fired power plants nationwide.

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The proposed restrictions, unveiled by officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, would apply only to new fossil-fuel-burning power plants – limiting them to no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt generated.

A typical coal-fired plant produces more than 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt. Most natural-gas fired plants – the majority of power plants under construction today – emit less than the new standard, around 800 pounds per megawatt.

The proposed restrictions were hailed by environmentalists but criticized by the coal industry as leading to higher electricity prices.

EPA officials stressed that the agency was abiding by a US Supreme Court mandate – and said the new rule should not be onerous because it follows industry trends toward cleaner power plants. The agency will soon open the rule to public comment, including public hearings, with an expected final rule late this year.

“Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American-made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids.”

At present, there is no uniform national limit on the amount of carbon emissions that new power plants can emit. The EPA noted in a fact sheet that the agency was compelled by a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling "to determine if [the emissions] threaten public health and welfare." In December 2009, the agency formally declared that greenhouse gases "endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations."

Environmental groups praised the EPA’s announcement.

“EPA deserves a standing ovation for today's historic action to protect Americans’ health, strengthen our economy, and address the clear and present danger of carbon pollution,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement. “The bottom line for our nation is that cleaner power will cut harmful carbon pollution, protect our children from dangerous smog and other serious climate impacts, and help secure a safe and prosperous future."

Ms. Jackson stressed that what EPA is doing is in keeping with existing trends. Several states, including Washington, Oregon and California, already limit greenhouse gas emissions, while Montana and Illinois currently require new coal plants to capture and store their emissions, EPA noted.

Meanwhile, next-generation power plants that burn coal more cleanly should be able to meet the proposed standard without add-on controls, the EPA maintained.

Scores of old, inefficient coal-fired power plants were already expected to close as a result of other air pollution regulations – with gas fired plants popping up in their place. According to industry experts, if coal loses out in utilities’ decisions on what to build, it would be because the economics of burning gas are simply better than burning coal.

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