President Obama was applauded in his June climate change speech at Georgetown University when he said he was ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to develop power-plant carbon pollution rules to end the “limitless dumping” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Last month, new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy delivered convincingly on the first level of that process, proposing standards for new fossil-fuel power plants. Coal-fired plants and large natural gas plants would be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. That would be a cut of more than 40 percent from today’s most advanced coal-fired plants.
The announcement was hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough, but condemned by the coal industry for a simple reason: It will be expensive for builders of new plants to develop sufficient carbon-capture and sequestration technology to meet the new guidelines. McCarthy, in a telephone interview, said it is not the EPA’s intention to wage “war on coal,” as is being asserted by coal-state senators such as Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Senate Democrat. She said the EPA’s role is to come up with rules under the Clean Air Act that hopefully will spur investment in cleaner-coal technologies in a nation that also takes seriously dangers to climate change and public health. It sounds like a thin reed of hope, but it’s the best answer, and it’s not likely to be as far-fetched a goal as the industry proclaims. Throughout the history of the Clean Air Act, such targets have been declared impossible, only to have technology enable such reductions and more.