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Mass. in pact to sharply cut power plant emissions

Massachusetts and eight other Northeast states are nearly halving the amount of carbon dioxide power plants are allowed to emit –- a dramatic reduction that is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the state while combating global warming.

The revision of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative agreement comes four years after the nine-state program first put in place a cap aimed at curbing emissions of the key heat-trapping gas in order to slow manmade climate change.

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“This agreement means lower greenhouse gas emissions for the region and increased growth and opportunity in our clean energy economy, a major driver of job creation here,” Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement. State environmental officials pushed hard for the sharp cut.

“It is also a strong statement that this region, which comprises nearly 20 percent of the national economy, is serious about being stewards of our environment and addressing climate change,” Patrick said.

The new agreement -- the most aggressive emission limits being considered by the states –- comes shortly after Superstorm Sandy and the re-election of President Obama pushed climate change back into the limelight and onto the political agenda. The US Environmental Protection Agency has already issued greenhouse gas emission regulations for new power plants and is expected to release rules for existing ones soon. The Northeast states participating in the regional initiative are expected to use RGGI to help meet any new federal rules.

The current regional cap is at 165 million tons of carbon dioxide – but power plants in the nine states emitted only about 91 tons last year, largely because of the region’s growing dependence on natural gas, which releases fewer greenhouse gases when burned to generate electricity.

While those lowered emissions helped global warming, it undercut a key goal of the initiative: Have power plants invest in cleaner technologies rather than buy expensive emission allowances. With emissions so low, plants had no reason to make changes.

The new cap will start at 91 tons in 2014 and be lowered 2.5 percent per year until 2020. The reductions are likely to be even greater because the formula is designed to permit an even lower cap early on to force power plants to quickly use up inexpensive allowances they already possess.

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