Policy: Environment & Energy

Rep. Ed Whitfield, Sen. Joe Manchin take aim at EPA regs

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Barack Obama,Climate Change,EPA,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Coal,Zack Colman

A pair of lawmakers is pushing legislation that would handcuff forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., say their bill would give electric utilities more flexibility in meeting the carbon emission regulations.

A draft of the bill the lawmakers floated Monday takes aim at a provision of the EPA rule that would require new coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Whitfield called that technology, which involves trapping carbon emissions and pumping them underground, unproven and “totally economically unfeasible” for power plants to install.

“Everything that they’re referring to in their proposed regulations is all speculative,” Whitfield told reporters in his Capitol Hill office.

The bill would kill the Obama administration's proposed greenhouse gas emissions rules for new power plants. Instead, it would set a new standard based on the performance of six commercial power plants across the country that have operated at an economically viable level for one year.

Three such units that burn lignite coal – a type of coal with a low energy content — would have to be economically viable for a year as well.

The bill also would prevent emissions rules on existing power plants from going into effect until Congress passes legislation setting an implementation date — which the Republican-controlled House would be unlikely to do.

It also would require the EPA to establish different regulatory categories for natural gas- and coal-fired power plants. The agency has already indicated it would do so.

The bill's chance of becoming law faces long odds. It would surely face a veto from President Obama, and the Democratic-controlled Senate would present an obstacle.

But both lawmakers plan to forge ahead, as they said the legislation could engineer debate on the administration’s environment agenda.

Whitfield suggested it could put vulnerable Democrats running for reelection in 2014 in a tight spot, while Manchin said it could help a few in energy-producing or red-leaning states, such as Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

The initiative reflects a broader criticism of Obama’s climate agenda by congressional Republicans and centrist Democrats, who say the emissions rules on power plants will raise energy prices and harm the economy.

Obama called for the new emissions rules in a climate agenda he laid out in June. The rule for new plants is due in June 2014, with the one for existing facilities scheduled for a June 2015 release.

Most Democrats on Capitol Hill support Obama’s climate plan, the centerpiece of which are the carbon emissions rules for new and existing power plants. They say the rules will help mitigate climate change and the extreme weather events associated with it.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called Whitfield’s bill “scientific lunacy.”

“It will endanger the future of our children and grandchildren. Four weeks ago, Republicans in Congress recklessly shut down government,” he said. “Now they are recklessly trying to shut down efforts to protect the planet.”

But critics of Obama’s plan say carbon capture and storage technology is too expensive, and that the administration is effectively barring construction of new coal-fired power plants.

Carbon capture and storage technology has had trouble getting off the ground. It’s in the demonstration phase in a handful of locations across the world, but has not reached commercial scale.

The coal industry and other business groups say that technology won’t be ready by the time the new EPA regulations go into effect, and that installing carbon capture and storage would make coal-fired generation unprofitable.

Regardless, the metrics outlined in the draft bill released Monday would be a tough bar to meet because utilities are not planning to add coal-fired generation in the U.S.

That’s because the U.S. shale energy boom has unlocked an abundant supply of low-cost natural gas, pushing utilities to use natural gas for baseload power supply and causing coal’s share of the electricity mix to drop in recent years.

Still, Whitfield and Manchin argued the EPA rules would foreclose the option of building new coal-fired power plants should natural gas prices rise in the future.

“We don’t expect people to be running out and building new coal-fired power plants,” Whitfield said. “As it stands ... new plants will not even be an option.”

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