Gina McCarthy, an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the nation’s top environmental enforcer will require new coal power plants to cut their carbon emission by roughly half of what current plants emit during a news conference at the National Press Club.
The announcement constituted part of a slate of major regulatory actions by the Obama administration to reduce carbon emissions.
"New power plants, both natural gas and coal-fired, can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of modern technologies," McCarthy said. "Simply put, these standards represent the cleanest standards we’ve put forth for new natural gas plants and new coal plants."
The draft rule will require all new coal plants built in the United States limit their emissions to less than 1,100 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt-hour.
The rule does not affect existing coal power plants, a major item on the wish list of environmentalists. However, it represents one of the biggest actions undertaken so far by the Obama administration to regulate carbon emissions.
President Barack Obama signaled during his State of the Union address this year that he would use his second term to take on climate change, with or without congressional support.
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said.
Obama followed that with a June speech at Georgetown University on climate change, emphasizing the need for strict cuts in carbon emissions.
"For the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants," Obama said.
The EPA’s first attempt to regulate existing coal plants was withdrawn in April when it became apparent that the regulations had a good chance of being overturned in court by industry challenges.
The new rule announced Friday allows new coal plants to emit about 10 percent more carbon than the previous incarnation.
However, industry critics say the new rule will still kill jobs, raise energy prices, and decrease competition in the energy sector, ultimately hurting consumers. Critics say it will stop construction of all new coal plants.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) said in a conference call Friday the proposal would do more harm than good.
"The EPA’s proposal confirms the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to meaningful, long-term energy policy," said ACCCE president Mike Duncan.
"Despite their talk about an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy, the EPA is banning the construction of modern coal plants resulting in fewer fuel choices in the market," Duncan said. "Fewer energy choices could cause American consumers to pay the ultimate price of higher energy bills."
While the ACCCE has not had time to fully review the more than 400 pages of new regulations, senior vice president for federal affairs Paul Bailey said he has no doubt the EPA will have to defend them against legal challenges.
"This will be settled in the court," he said. "We'll make all the best policy arguments we can, and all the best legal arguments we can."
Experts believe the legal challenges will likely come down to whether or not the new regulations can be implemented on a large scale and without exorbitant costs, one of the provisions for new regulations under the Clean Air Act.
The new rules will require plants to limit emissions, likely by installing so-called "carbon capture and sequestration" technology. Coal industry representatives have argued that the technology is not yet ready for prime time and would put significant cost burdens on plants.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a D.C.-based think tank, said the changes to the new rule were "cosmetic" and likely to still be shot down in court.
"The rule as proposed is unlikely to survive judicial review," CEI fellow William Yeatman said. "In particular, EPA’s explanation for how carbon capture and sequestration can be achieved industry-wide falls woefully short. The agency relied on ‘crystal ball' reasoning, which is forbidden by the courts."
Reactions on Capitol Hill fell along familiar fault lines, with Republicans and coal country Democrats in opposition.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.) said in statement that the new rule was "direct evidence that this Administration is trying to hold the coal industry to impossible standards."
"Never before has the federal government forced an industry to do something that is technologically impossible," Manchin said. "Forcing coal to meet the same emissions standards as gas when experts know that the required technology is not operational on a commercial scale makes absolutely no sense and will have devastating impacts to the coal industry and our economy."
In a seperate statement, Rep. Nick Rahall (D., W.V.) said the EPA a "callous, ideologically driven agency" that "continues to be numb to the economic pain that their reckless regulations cause."
However, other Democrats were quite pleased.
"The era of boundlessly polluting our skies with climate-altering pollution is nearing its end," Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) said in a statement. "For decades, we’ve known that setting limits on smog, on mercury, on other dangerous emissions saves lives and preserves our planet. Today, the Obama administration is proposing to put limits on carbon pollution needed to stop climate changes that are endangering our people and our planet.