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Proposed EPA Regulations Could Have an Impact on Local Environment, Residents’ Power Bills

By Greg Hince

June 21, 2012. A proposed rule by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing coal as an energy source for new power plants, could have a wide range of effects on High Country residents economically and environmentally, according to local businesses and organizations.

The rule effectively outlaws the building of a coal-fired plant that does not have a carbon capture and storage method. That technology, which promotes fuel diversity, is still being developed and is expensive and not readily available.

The last hearing on the rule took place on April 13, but there is an open period for public comment to the EPA until June 25. The rules also would set new emissions standards for cars and trucks and institute new requirements for factories and farms.

Renee Whitener, Director of Public Relations for Blue Ridge Power Electric, said that the restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions would force electric co-ops into increasing costs and taxes for customers and cutting jobs in order to invest in equipment to meet the EPA’s new standards, which she called unrealistic.

“We all care about the environment, but we have to balance our goals with our resources,” Whitener said. “We would have to sacrifice reliability, and in this economic downturn people need to come home and be able to know that the lights will turn on, and the AC will work.”

The rule would require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, meets that standard. Coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt. Currently there is no limit on the amount of carbon emissions that new power plants can emit.

Whitener said that in her opinion coal was an abundant resource for natural energy and a method that shouldn’t be taken off the table and sacrificed for the building of new natural gas lines.

However, Tom Cormons, Deputy Programs Director at Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit committed to protecting the central and southern Appalachian and reducing coal’s impact on the region, said that there are limited accessible coal reserves left, and building a coal-burning power plant with a five or six decade life span isn’t feasible.

“It may cost more at first, but when you look at future mining and production costs, it doesn’t even make financial sense to stick with coal, not to mention the implications the use of coal has on the environment and public health, especially in our region,” Cormons said.

Mountaintop removal, an efficient and profitable but degregating form of coal mining, has long been an issue among environmentalists and residents of the High County.

Cathy Milbourn, Special Assistant at the EPA, said in a March 27 news release that the proposed standard reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies, including new, clean-burning, efficient natural gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants.

An ariel shot of a mountaintop removal site near Rawl, W.Va. Flight courtesy of SouthWings; Photo by Kent Kessinger

The EPA’s website states that the agency is abiding by a mandate from a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, though the Obama Administration didn’t propose the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon pollution from new power plants until earlier this year. The EPA formally declared that greenhouse gases “endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations” in December 2009.

The proposed rules will still allow companies to burn coal, though they are required to emit less carbon pollution. Administration officials and energy analysts have said the rules would have only a modest impact because low natural gas prices are already prompting utility companies to build natural gas plants instead.

The proposed rule only concerns new generating units that will be built in the future, and does not apply to existing units already operating or units that will start construction over the next 12 months. A final rule on the initiative is expected later this year, after the period of public comment ends.

“We encourage people to visit http://takeaction.nreca.org and urge the EPA to withdraw its proposed regulations,” Doug Johnson, CEO of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, said. “We need to have an abundance of reliable energy, and these regulations require significant upgrades in an unrealistic and compressed timeframe, making compliance unnecessarily more expensive which could impact electric rates.”

Blue Ridge Electric is not a producer, and purchases their power from Duke Energy. Whitener estimated that 45 percent of their power comes from coal.

“Americans and North Carolinians need a vast amount of electricity to stimulate the world’s best economy,” she said. “And we can’t afford to retire efficient, less expensive plants.”

However, Cormons contends that embracing new sources of energy is vital to health of people, the environment and the economy in western North Carolina and across the country.

“As bad as mountaintop removal is for this region, the air pollution power plants release makes much more of an impact on every single person,” he said. “We need to hold utility companies accountable for their impact on quality of life and climate change.”

Cormons said that thousands of Americans die a year from air pollution alone, and called for power companies to “level the playing field”. He also underscored his opinion that coal-burning power plants will cost more money in repairs over time and become outdated and inefficient, but are also a bad investment because coal is a limited resource.

“These EPA regulations would be a positive step and are a big improvement on current plant regulations,” Cormons said. “But, we would like to see even more done and more attention paid to power companies and the effect they have on our everyday quality of life.”

For more information from the EPA please visit http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ghgrulemaking.html.