Environmental groups are applauding the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce emissions from power plants while many in the energy industry, namely in coal, are panning it.
“This is a ground-breaking moment for Pennsylvania, for the nation, for the globe,” said Christina Simeone, director of the PennFuture Energy Center.
The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance sees it differently.
“This proposal is bad for the economy," said Alliance CEO John Pippy. "We think it’s bad for Pennsylvania, and we think it does not achieve any of the environmental goals the president said it would.”
The Environmental Protection Agency proposal suggests that Pennsylvania cut 2012 carbon emissions by about a third by 2030. Some other states that use more coal would have to make even greater cuts.
The proposal sets off a complex regulatory process in which each state will determine how to meet targets set by the EPA, then submit those plans for approval. Power companies could achieve reductions in several ways, from improving energy efficiency to encouraging lower-carbon sources of power, such as wind power or natural gas.
“It gives states flexibility, both in goals that is sets and also the way states can achieve those greenhouse gas reduction goals,” Simeone said. “We’re very encouraged that renewable energy and energy efficiency are part of the compliance mix.”
But PA Coal Alliance’s Pippy said the plan will be devastating to the state’s coal industry. He instead would like to see a plan that relies upon existing technology to bring down emissions. He said the 30 percent reduction just isn’t realistic.
“There really isn’t any way to do that currently with available technology for the current coal fleet to meet that standard, so it’s a de-facto ban on the existing coal fleet with no way to replace that in a cost-effective manner,” Pippy said.
PennFuture disagreed and said this rule would spur economic development in different areas.
“Promoting new technologies, new low-carbon technologies, the rule envisions promotion of renewable energy, promotion of nuclear energy, promotion of natural gas energy, the rule also promotes energy efficiency at homes and businesses,” said PennFuture’s Simeone.
One major energy company was cautiously optimistic about the proposal.
"First Energy believes it is in a strong position to meet the requirements in the proposed rule" through investments in emissions controls and plant retirements, said spokeswoman Stephanie Walton. She said First Energy, which is based in Akron, Ohio, is still studying the plan, but had already expected to cut carbon emissions significantly next year.
Pippy said other industries are also working to cut emissions.
“Pennsylvania has seen some great improvements,” he said. “We’re going to have, already, a 17 percent reduction in CO2 emissions based on 2005 numbers by 2015. But if you overreach, which is what the EPA is doing right now, what will happen is you will see a shutdown of an industry that provides more than 40 percent of the power here in the commonwealth.”
But Simeone said new rules are regulations are not to blame for the closure of coal-fired power plants; several have closed in recent years and more are slated for closure in the future.
“These plants are closing because they are old and outdated and can’t meet other public health emissions requirements like reducing toxic mercury emissions and other very harmful public health pollution requirements,” Simeone said.
The 645-page plan, expected to be finalized next year, is a centerpiece of Obama's efforts to deal with climate change and seeks to give the United States more leverage to prod other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year. Under the plan, carbon emissions are to be reduced 30 percent from 2005 levels.
Obama, in a conference call hosted by the American Lung Association, said the plan would both shrink electricity prices and protect the health of vulnerable Americans. He scolded critics who he predicted would contend anew that the limits would crush jobs and damage the economy.
Gov. Tom Corbett weighed in with a statement saying, “As Pennsylvanians, we are doing our fair share to reduce carbon emissions, and we have made great strides in recent years. While we continue to review the EPA’s proposed rulemaking in detail, I am concerned that these new mandates will eventually shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country and destroy thousands of family-sustaining jobs. Those reports, if true, are unacceptable.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report