Bob Downing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first carbon limits for emissions from new coal-fired power plants.

The proposed nationwide limits would require a 50 percent reduction in carbon from America’s coal-fired power plants.

At present, there are no federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

“We’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children and move us into a new era of American energy,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement.

The proposed limits are similar to clean-air standards adopted or pending in a number of states, including California, New York, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Minnesota.

The proposed standards reflect the continuing trend to build electric-generating power plants that rely on cleaner-burning natural gas, not coal. The proposed limits are close to what a power plant burning natural gas would emit.

The new rules will give electric utilities the certainty they need to invest in cleaner technologies to produce electricity, the EPA said.

Legal challenges to the new rules are anticipated.

The proposed rule does not affect existing coal-fired power plants, including 17 operated by the FirstEnergy Corp.

The Akron utility has no plans to build new coal-fired plants, but the new rules would impose “pretty serious steps” that could make it difficult to build and operate such plants, said Mark Durbin, a FirstEnergy spokesman.

The company knew that the EPA was looking at such limits, so the agency’s announcement was no surprise, he said. FirstEnergy has not seen the EPA plan and the details are always a key part of such proposals, he said.

Other technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration in underground rocks are still not proven, he said.

FirstEnergy intends to close nine of those coal-fired plants.

Coal-fired power plants are the No. 1 source of carbon dioxide. They emit an estimated 2.3 billion tons per year and are one the largest sources of greenhouse-warming gases.

The EPA announcement was hailed by health and environmental groups and criticized by industry groups.

Said Rashay Layman of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club: “Cleaning up dangerous carbon pollution from new power plants and modernizing the way we power our nation will help secure Americans’ health and future, and prevent against life-threatening air pollutants like dirty soot, toxic mercury and smog. Most of all, these carbon pollution protections mark the end of an era for antiquated, dirty coal plants and continue the momentum behind clean energy to ensure healthier kids, families and workers, as well as much-needed job creation and a more secure climate future.”

Scott Segal, executive director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of energy companies, said, “At first blush, we believe that the proposal is short-sighted and marks a real departure from the [Obama] administration’s goal of an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. The rule would effectively ban the future of almost half of our current electric portfolio.”

The EPA action was required under a settlement agreement with three national environmental groups — the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund — and 11 states plus the District of Columbia and New York City.

Following a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the EPA in 2009 determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the health of Americans by contributing to long-lasting climate change.

The EPA will accept public comment on its proposal for 60 days after it appears in the Federal Register. For details, go to http://epa.gov/carbonpollutionstandard.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.