The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a fight ahead over proposed and pending greenhouse gas regulations for power plants. The agency published proposed carbon emissions standards for new power plants on January 8, with comments due March 10. Those standards, which would preclude new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) quickly drew criticism from the electric power industry and legislators from states that rely heavily on coal. The latest in the political fight is the resolution of disapproval filed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Under the Congressional Review Act “major” federal regulations can be overruled using an expedited procedure in the Senate, requiring only 51 votes to pass. Of course, the resolution of disapproval must be either signed by the President or passed by two-thirds of Congress. This resolution has an infinitesimal chance of being passed. Of note – since its creation in 1996, 43 resolutions have been introduced in the Senate or House. Only two have passed one house of Congress, and only one (1!) regulation (rule on ergonomics) has been disapproved by Congress. The resolution is thus largely symbolic (and political). In other Congressional moves, a coalition in the House has introduced a bill that would require EPA to make public all its research before implementing a new environmental policy. The prognosis for passage of this bill is equally poor.
On the legal front, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the coming week challenging EPA’s carbon standards. 74 state and business groups across the U.S. argue that the regulations will have severe economic consequences. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has urged the Obama administration to withdraw the rule after an official from the Department of Energy testified during a Congressional hearing that requiring CCS would result in an increase of 70 to 80 percent in the price of electricity from coal plants. In the meantime, the EPA may be having difficulty writing a rule on existing power plants that could withstand legal challenges. EPA seems to be trying to do their homework on this rule, meeting with state officials, environmental groups and utilities. President Obama has directed the EPA to issue a draft rule by June 1st.
It is important to note that despite numerous media reports of reduced coal dependence in the U.S., generation from coal-fired power plants increased in 2013 to 39% due to a four-year high for natural gas prices. Natural gas-fired generation was 27.5% in 2013. While coal’s share of electric generation is down from 50% (in 2005), it is projected to have a bigger share than natural gas in 2014, according to projections by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The impact of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) which will be implemented next year will force many older coal units without pollution controls to retire. EIA projects 60 GW of coal-fired power to retire by 2020 as a result of MATS, drawing more criticism for EPA rules that predominately affect coal.