Policy: Environment & Energy

White House: Obama will direct EPA to go after existing coal plants

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President Obama will direct the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten regulations on carbon emissions from existing coal plants as part of a climate change policy he will unveil today that does not require congressional approval.

“The president will be issuing a presidential memorandum directing the EPA to start the important work they’re going to do, not only on new but existing coal plants as well,” a senior administration official told reporters during a background briefing on Obama’s coming speech. “We are beginning a process, and that process will involve a very aggressive set of stakeholder conversations — including the states, labor, utilities and others . . . [that] will ultimately allow us to develop a rule that provides common sense rules of the road, that does have industry support, and allows for a common sense timely transition to a clean energy economy.”

Obama’s memorandum will put EPA on a schedule to propose the rule by June of next year and finalize it the following year. The senior administration officials avoided saying explicitly if the rule will hold coal to the same emissions standard as other power sources, such as natural gas plants.

“I would defer you to EPA on that, in terms of what they believe is the right next step with respect to the standard for new plants,” one of the senior administration replied when asked if there would be one rule for all plants.

The EPA administrator during Obama’s first term implemented policies that sought to “make [coal] communities go away,” as one top EPA official put it, by mandating that new coal plants meet the same emissions standards required of lower-emission energy sources.

“Lisa Jackson has put forth a very powerful message to the country,” EPA New England Regional Administrator Curt Spalding said at Yale University during a March 2012 forum.  “Just two days ago, the decision on greenhouse gas performance standards, and saying basically, ‘gas plants are the performance standard, which means that if you want to build a coal plant you’ve got a big problem.’ That was a huge decision.”

“You can’t imagine how tough that was, because — you got to remember — if you go to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and all those places, you have coal communities who depend on coal,” Spalding continued. “And to say, ‘we just think those communities should just go away’ — we can’t do that. But she had to do what the law and policy suggested and it’s painful. It is painful every step of the way.”

Governors from coal-dependent states — Democratic and Republican — have asked Obama not to allow the EPA to set one rule for all energy sources.

“The proposed rule seeks to establish a uniform standard for all three fuel sources, an unprecedented approach under the Clean Air Act,” Gov. Tom Corbett, D-Penn., wrote to Obama in May. “I urge you to consider alternative approaches that do not harm Pennsylvania’s economy of endanger access to affordable electricity that the residents of my state rely upon.”

Similarly, Attorney General Tim Fox, R-Mont., said earlier this month that “the one-size-fits all approach to the EPA’s NSPS rule ignores the diversity of our energy supply.”

Fox is a Republican in one of the nation’s top coal-producing state, so his criticism is hardly surprising, but it points to the fact that this new policy could be a headache for Senate Democrats in 2014.Obama’s schedule would have the EPA release the proposed rule in June of 2014, in the midst of the midterm elections. Montana is currently represented by a Democratic senator, but his decision to retire has Republicans hoping to pick up the seat.

Although the issue promises to become a campaign football, given the concern regarding the regulation’s economic impact, the Obama team doesn’t think it needs congressional approval for the array of policies that the president will discuss today.

“We see this as a broad based effort that leans heavily on our existing authority,” a senior administration told reporters. “At this time, there are not specific asks of Congress.”

 

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