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Jay urges measured response to EPA greenhouse rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Wednesday urged a measured response to an Obama administration proposal that would require any new coal-fired power plants built in the U.S. to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half.

The West Virginia Democrat said coalfield leaders need to do more to ensure that technology and financing is in place to allow utilities to meet the proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

"We need to grab hold of our own future, by working together to drive clean coal technology forward," Rockefeller said in a prepared statement issued the day after EPA announced its proposal.

The Rockefeller statement offered a stark contrast to the reaction from other coalfield political and business leaders, who harshly condemned what they depicted as just another Obama effort to destroy the coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a statement that said the proposal would "devastate West Virginia and our region," adding, "I will not stand for it."

On Tuesday, Alpha Natural Resources President Kevin Crutchfield cited the EPA greenhouse gas proposal as the one government rule that would hurt the coal industry the most without providing any environmental benefits. Crutchfield also questioned whether any action was needed, given what he said was uncertainty about the science of climate change.

Most scientists and scientific organizations around the world say global temperatures are increasing, human activities -- primarily burning fossil fuels -- are to blame, and that reductions in greenhouse emissions are urgently needed to avoid dangerous impacts.

Under the EPA proposal, new power plants would generally have to limit their carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity generated.

Coal-fired power plants could meet that by using carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology to cut their carbon dioxide emissions in half, EPA said. By contrast, a natural gas-fired power plant could meet the EPA emissions limits without any additional pollution controls.

In his statement, Rockefeller cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 ruling that mandated action on greenhouse gas emissions if EPA scientists concluded -- as they did in December 2009 -- that those emissions were endangering public health and welfare.

"We have known since the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut to meet environmental standards, and we know that coal faces intense competition from other energy sources, as investments are increasingly moving to cheaper natural gas," Rockefeller said. "In the near-term, EPA has exempted all coal-fired plants that are operating today or under construction. But for the future, the key question is whether the new emissions standard is set so high that even the best known clean coal technologies can't meet it, which would be bad for coal and bad for the environment."

Rockefeller said that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technologies "hold real and important potential for cleaner coal in the U.S. and across the globe, but the utility industry needs to have certainty for financing and deploying these technologies on a commercial scale or we won't achieve new targets."

The United Mine Workers union complained that EPA "knows very well that CCS technology has not been commercially demonstrated.

"But the rule it proposed yesterday would require the potential builders of new coal plants to commit to CCS at the time of their permit applications, despite the associated costs and uncertainties," union President Cecil Roberts said. "In practice, it would not be possible to finance a new coal plant to meet the proposed EPA standards."

While coal industry supporters and many scientists believe that carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, can be a part of the solution to global warming, there are major questions about the cost, scale and feasibility of equipment that would need to be installed on power plants around the world. And many experts caution that without mandated cuts in greenhouse emissions -- either by an EPA rule or act of Congress -- industry is unlikely to widely install expensive CCS equipment.

Just three years ago, West Virginia leaders were touting plans for an expanded CCS test project at American Electric Power's Mountaineer Plant in Mason County. But last year, AEP dropped that project, in part because the lack of federal limits on greenhouse gases makes spending on emissions controls unattractive.

EPA said that market data and projections show utilities are switching away from coal-fired power plants anyway, but that its proposal would provide "regulatory certainty" regarding greenhouse limits, a necessity if CCS technology is to be widely deployed.

"EPA intends this rule to send a clear signal about the future of CCS technology that, in conjunction with other policies such as Department of Energy financial assistance, the agency estimates will support development and demonstration of CCS technology from coal-fired power plants at commercial scale, if that financial assistance is made available and under the appropriate market conditions," EPA said in a report on its regulatory proposal.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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