States move to blunt Obama carbon plan
Jun 1, 2014 at 8:00 PM
As President Barack Obama prepares to announce tougher new air quality standards, lawmakers in several states already are trying to blunt the impact on aging coal-fired power plants that feed electricity to millions of consumers.
The push against Obama's new carbon emission standards has been strongest in some states that have large coal-mining industries or rely heavily on coal to fuel their electricity. State officials say the new federal regulations could jeopardize the jobs of thousands of workers and drive up the monthly electric bills of residents and businesses.
It remains to be seen whether new measures passed by the states will amount to mere political symbolism or actually temper what's expected to be an aggressive federal effort to reduce the country's reliance on coal. But either way, states likely will play a pivotal role, because federal clean air laws leave it up to each state to come up its own plan for complying with the emission guidelines.
The proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules to be announced Monday could be the first to apply to carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants. Coal is the most common fuel source for the nation's electricity and, when it's burned, is a leading source of the greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Without waiting to see what Obama proposes, governors in Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have signed laws directing their environmental agencies to develop their own carbon emission plans that consider the costs of compliance at individual power plants. Similar measures recently passed in Missouri and are pending in the Louisiana and Ohio legislatures.
Missouri lawmakers went even further in their defense of the coal industry. When activists proposed a ballot initiative barring local tax breaks for St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, state lawmakers quickly passed a measure banning such moves.
Some states have specifically empowered local regulators to develop emission plans that are less stringent than federal guidelines. According to measures passed recently, the state policies are to take into account the "unreasonable cost" of reducing emissions based on a plant's age and design and the "economic impacts" of shutting down particular power plants.
"The concern is that the federal standards — if they come out the way that most people expect them to — are going to drive the cost of electricity up for every single consumer in the state," said Missouri state Rep. Todd Richardson, a Republican.
Eighty-three percent of Missouri's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, the fifth highest percentage nationally behind West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming and Indiana.
Federal emission regulations already allow flexibility for states if they can demonstrate costs would be unreasonable for particular facilities. But a spokesman for the EPA's Midwestern region, which oversees several states that rely predominantly on coal for their electricity, said he's unaware of that provision ever being used.
It's unlikely that the Obama administration would essentially undercut its new carbon emission standards by granting widespread exceptions, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents air pollution control agencies in 42 states and 116 metropolitan areas.
If a state doesn't comply with EPA guidelines, the federal agency can create its own plan for the state.
"This is not a standard that a state then can willy-nilly ignore," Becker said. "It's going to have to achieve at least that standard or more. Period."
In many Midwestern states, the drive to constrain the new federal emission standards has been supported by an electric industry that has a large financial stake in coal.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback held a ceremonial signing in April for legislation allowing the state to set "flexible" standards for carbon dioxide emissions. He held the event in Holcomb at the proposed site of a new $2.8 billion, coal-fired power plant being pursued by Sunflower Electric Power Corp.
The legislation "is an effort by us to be able to handle issues at the state level, instead of being dictated, one size fits all, nationally," Brownback said. He added: "We will see how effective it is."