Coal-friendly lawmakers move to shield industry from EPA rules

11/14/2013 5:05 PM

11/14/2013 5:35 PM

Coal state lawmakers are attempting to block the Obama administration from limiting the planet-warming emissions of power plants.

Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin are pushing a measure that would require congressional approval of President Barack Obama’s signature move to combat climate change.

Whitfield charged at a Thursday hearing that the Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing a “one-two punch to eliminate coal as a source of electricity.”

The EPA recently put out the first-ever limits on greenhouse gases from future power plants. The impact of those regulations is blunted by the fact that they don’t apply to existing plants. Not many new coal-fired plants are being built anymore in the United States.

But a bigger fight will come next year, when the EPA puts out greenhouse gas standards for existing plants. Coal still makes up 37 percent of U.S. electricity generation. In Kentucky, it’s more than 90 percent.

Whitfield and Manchin’s plan would forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing plants unless Congress passes a law agreeing to when the limits would start. Their proposal also would put conditions on the rules for future plants.

Janet McCabe, the EPA’s top air pollution regulator, said at Thursday’s hearing that her agency has serious issues with the lawmakers’ draft legislation. It would hurt the fight against climate change, she said.

“Power plants are clearly the largest source of carbon in the country,” said McCabe.

But the power industry doesn’t want to be a target. East Kentucky Power Cooperative CEO Tony Campbell testified that he’s worried about what the upcoming limits on existing plants could mean for consumer rates.

“The people we serve are some of the poorest people in Kentucky. . . . They are going to have to choose: Can they afford medicine, can they afford food or can they afford electricity?” he said.

It’s not clear, though, how big a deal those limits will be. The states will get to decide how to handle their existing plants, and the Environmental Protection Agency promises to be flexible.

“EPA will set the target, but then the states will have flexibility to meet that in whatever way makes sense to them,” McCabe said.

The Obama administration’s plan for future power plants is more rigid. The EPA intends to make new coal-fired power plants install costly technology to capture carbon and store it underground. The coal industry maintains that the technology isn’t ready for widespread use and that it amounts to a ban on new plants. The federal Department of Energy and the EPA assert otherwise.

California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman said the Whitfield-Manchin proposal to curb the EPA’s authority is “lunacy,” a reckless attempt to block efforts to protect the planet.

But the proposal has a lot of support in the House of Representatives, where Republicans in particular say the EPA is going too far.

It might not go far in the Senate, though. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pledges to stop the measure.

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