EPA rule targets new coal-fired power plants

Both sides criticize measure to curb carbon pollution

EPA chief Lisa Jackson said the new rule will create a path for future plants to burn coal while releasing less carbon pollution.
EPA chief Lisa Jackson said the new rule will create a path for future plants to burn coal while releasing less carbon pollution.Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration forged ahead Tuesday with the first-ever limits on heat-trapping pollution from new power plants, ignoring protests from industry and Republicans who have said the regulation will raise electricity prices and kill off coal, the dominant US energy source.

But the regulation also fell short of environmentalists’ hopes because it goes easier than it could have on coal-fired power, one of the largest sources of the gases blamed for global warming.

“The standard will check the previously uncontrolled amount [of carbon pollution] that power plants . . . release into our atmosphere,’’ Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a conference call Tuesday. But “it also creates a path forward for future facilities to use technology that burns coal, while releasing less carbon pollution.’’


Older coal-fired power plants have already been shutting down across the country, thanks to low natural gas prices, demand from China driving up coal’s price, and weaker demand for electricity.

Regulations from the EPA to control pollution blowing downwind and toxic emissions from power plants have also helped push some into retirement, causing Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail to say the agency will cause blackouts. Numerous studies and an AP survey of power plant operators have shown that is not the case.

But on Tuesday, GOP leaders once again accused the administration of clamping down on cheap, home-grown sources of energy and said the regulation raised questions about the sincerity of President Obama’s pledge for an “all-of-the-above’’ energy policy.

“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 Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has led the charge against environmental regulations.


The rule announced Tuesday could either derail or jump-start plans for 15 new coal-fired power plants in 10 states, depending on when they start construction. Those that break ground in the next year would be exempt from the new limit. Those that start construction later will have to eventually comply with the rule.

Existing power plants, even if they make changes that increase emissions, would not be covered at all. New ones would have years to meet the standard and could average their emissions over three decades in order to meet the threshold.

But eventually, all coal-fired power plants would need to install equipment to capture half of their carbon pollution. While not commercially available now, the EPA projects that by 2030, no new coal-fired power plant will be built without carbon capture and storage.

By contrast, a new natural gas-fired power plant would meet the new standard without installing additional controls.

“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, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group of coal-burning electricity producers, took a more dismal view of the proposal.

“The latest rule 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,’’ Miller said.


The regulation stemmed from a settlement with environmental groups and states. The government, which 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 refineries.

But Jackson said Tuesday that the agency has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, an advocacy group fighting coal-fired power, said that the regulation shows that Obama is moving to a cleaner energy future.

“It’s a strong move,’’ Brune said. “It means there will never be another coal plant built without new technology, and it probably means even those won’t be built because they can’t compete.’’

Other advocacy groups, however, said the regulation was imperfect, since it grandfathers in existing plants.