EPA Plan Targets New Coal-Fired Plants

The Environment Protection Agency released a draft rule Tuesday that puts new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from any future coal-fired power plants. The technology required to meet the new limits on carbon dioxide is currently so expensive that the rule effectively would put an end to the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

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A big change for the power industry. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new limit for how much greenhouse gases future power plants can pump out. The limit would basically outlaw construction of conventional plants that are fueled by coal. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, a revolution is already underway.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The kind of coal plants that have been the mainstay of the nation's electricity supply for decades would be too dirty to meet the EPA's proposal. Power plants that burn coal are the biggest source of electricity in the country. But burning all that coal also makes them the biggest source of carbon dioxide.

EPA chief, Lisa Jackson, says her proposal is a commonsense way to tackle the very real threat of climate change. She talked to reporters on a conference call.

LISA JACKSON: The standard will help us minimize the carbon released into the atmosphere day after day. It will enhance the lives of our children and our children's children.

SHOGREN: But here's the thing. Jackson says the industry has already turned its back on coal for new plants. That's because new technology has opened up abundant supplies of natural gas from shale deposits. Burning gas emits far less greenhouse gases than coal. Industry likes that gas prices are very low and predicted to stay down.

JIM ROGERS: As we look out over the next two decades, we do not plan to build another coal plant.

SHOGREN: That's Jim Rogers, president of Duke Energy. Just a few years ago, Rogers was derisively calling natural gas the crack cocaine of the power industry. It was cheap to build the plants, but prices fluctuated wildly. Now, he says he's hooked himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROGERS: I'm now an addict. And I was concerned with respect to whether shale gas was the real deal or not. And as the evidence is coming in, it's proving to be the real deal.

SHOGREN: So Rogers had already been betting on gas over coal.

ROGERS: If we have no plans, as one of the largest utilities and largest - users of coal in the country, no plans to build a new coal plant for two decades so the regulations are not relevant.

SHOGREN: American Electric Power is also making a switch to gas. Still, its president, Nick Akins, is nervous about EPA's proposal.

NICK ATKINS: I think the U.S. energy policy needs to include everything. So it's important for us to really keep coal in the picture.

SHOGREN: Now, under the EPA's proposal, you could still build a coal plant. But to keep your greenhouse gases down, you'd have to capture the plant's carbon dioxide. American Electric Power successfully did that on a small scale, but it has no plans to scale up that technology because it's so expensive.

Environmental leaders like Sierra Club's Executive Director, Michael Brune, are skeptical that technology will keep coal alive.

MICHAEL BRUNE: We'll probably never see a new coal plant built in the United States. It marks the end of an era in which coal was the dominant source of power in the United States.

SHOGREN: Brune says that this is very good news. Sierra Club was part of a group of environmental groups and states that sued the EPA to force it to make this rule. Still, Brune and others are upset that EPA officials do not plan to tackle existing power plants too.

BRUNE: They are bound by law to address the pollution coming from existing coal-fired power plants. And we'll take the EPA to court again, if necessary, to make sure that they're enforcing the law.

SHOGREN: Environmental groups add that now that the EPA is endorsing natural gas as the fuel of choice, it had better start regulating the air and water pollution that come from drilling for that gas. Elizabeth Shogren NPR News. Washington.

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