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Broad Obama climate plan includes power plant greenhouse limits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Declaring that the nation can both cut carbon pollution and create more jobs, President Obama on Tuesday announced plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants as part of a broad effort to curb global climate change.

The president rolled out a long list of initiatives ranging from efficiency programs and ramped up renewable energy production to extreme weather preparedness planning and more aggressive diplomatic moves to speed international climate change action.

"We have to look out for our future. We have to look out for our children. We have to create jobs and grow the economy," Obama said during a speech today at Georgetown University. "We can do all of that if we don't fear the future and instead we seize it."

In West Virginia, though, the proposals predictably drew swift and harsh criticism from political and business leaders who have for years opposed actions to tackle climate change.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said the president's plan was "misguided, misinformed and untenable," while Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called it "another move in the president's tyrannical game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry."

Some other observers -- including at least one major player in the coal industry -- offered more measured responses, especially to a power plant regulatory proposal of which details won't be unveiled for at least a year.

"The president appears to be taking a balanced approach to addressing the issue, and that's positive," said a prepared statement from American Electric Power.

AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said more details are needed, but that the utility industry can achieve "meaningful reductions and minimize economic pain" if Obama's plan "includes maximum flexibility within the confines of the Clean Air Act."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he understands Obama's desire to move forward given the "deep partisan gridlock" in Congress but is concerned the White House's current plan doesn't focus enough on "the people who are backbone of our economy and the fabric of our nation."

"We need more from the president to assure our miners and working families they're part of this plan," Rockefeller said in a statement. "To begin with, we need a timeline, a cost estimate and to understand how communities that have relied on coal are going to be supported once these proposals take effect."

Obama's announcement is the most significant climate effort by the administration since a cap-and-trade emissions bill failed in Congress during the president's first term. But the new plan also follows some major and less-publicized efforts by the administration to increase vehicle fuel efficiency and help fund renewable energy through the economic stimulus bill in 2009.

The administration has been moving toward regulating greenhouse gases under a July 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated action if the agency's scientists concluded those emissions were endangering public health and welfare. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has missed the deadline of a legal settlement that required it to issue a final power plant emissions-reduction rule by May 2012.

Last March, the EPA proposed a rule to generally require new power plants to limit their carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Coal-fired power plants could meet that limit -- less than half of their average current emissions -- only by using carbon capture and storage, or CCS, that isn't currently available on a commercial scale.

Many scientists recommend that the nation -- and the world -- needs to swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them dramatically to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

"Climate change is no longer a distant threat -- we are already feeling its impacts across the country and the world," the White House said in a 21-page document titled "The President's Climate Act Plan."

In his Georgetown speech, Obama left no doubt he's not interested in further debate about whether the planet is warming, whether human activity is to blame and whether something needs to be done about it.

"We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," Obama said. "Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel better, but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm."

Under the president's plan, EPA will first be ordered to finalize carbon dioxide limits for new power plants by September, senior administration officials said. EPA will then move forward with carbon dioxide limits for existing plants, issuing a proposal by June 2014 and finalizing those limits by June 2015.

The rules will cover all electricity generating stations -- the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse emissions -- but would almost certainly be tougher on coal-fired plants because burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, criticized Obama for "announcing imminent restrictions on carbon emissions from power plants that exceed the capabilities of current technology." Raney said the president shows "no regard for the people and communities of West Virginia that depend on coal and the inexpensive energy it creates."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., echoed Raney's comments, saying, "The regulations the president wants to force on coal are not feasible. And if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable."

Exact details of EPA's eventual proposals and final rules, though, are still to come, so it's not clear how difficult it would be for utilities to comply -- or how long of a phase-in period will eventually be allowed.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, said he was especially disappointed that no one from the White House reached out to his group for input before Tuesday's announcement.

"The climate action plan outlined [Tuesday] by President Obama contains many lofty goals, but nothing that speaks to the hardship and suffering his plan would cause to the lives of coal miners, their families, and others in the communities where they live," Roberts said.

Obama's plan, though, does include $8 billion in new U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects, including those aimed specifically at testing, perfecting and deploying CCS technology to control greenhouse emissions.

And when discussing the move to a cleaner energy economy in his speech, the president said, "We're going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition, not just here in the United States but around the world."

Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native who is studying coal and climate change for the Union of Concerned Scientists, praised Obama's proposals to curb global warming pollution.

"But this is only part of the solution," said Richardson, a physicist who comes from a family of miners. "We must provide support for workers and communities that are hurt by the energy transition so they can be part of that clean energy future."

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


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