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Legislation seeks to restrict EPA carbon rules

Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), along with seven other congressional representatives, introduced a new bill to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to regulate carbon emissions from utility power plants.  

The proposed bill, H.R. 2127, would prohibit the EPA from setting performance standards for carbon emissions from power plants until four government representatives — the director of National Energy Technology Laboratory, the administrator of the Energy Information Administration, the Comptroller General of the United States, and the Commerce Department undersecretary for standards and technology — conclude that carbon capture and sequestration is "technologically and economically feasible."  If enacted, the practical consequence of the bill would be to delay indefinitely the EPA's ability to require carbon sequester at fossil fuel-powered electric utility plants 

Sponsors of H.R. 2127 include six Republicans and two Democrats. One of the Democrats, Rep. Shelley Capito, is also from coal-rich West Virginia, while the other is Rep. Collin Peterson, a conservative 'Blue Dog' Democrat from Minnesota. 

In March of last year, the EPA proposed a rule that would have limited carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants to 1000 pounds per megawatt hour. Natural gas-fired plants already easily meet that standard, but coal-fired plants would have serious difficulties. In April of this year, the EPA delayed implementation of the new rule after being inundated with negative comments from coal state Congressmen and lobbyists for the coal industry.  

H.R. 2127 appears to be the latest attempt to fend off the inevitable. Not only does it require the mutual agreement of a diverse set of administrators, it uses some particularly tortured definitions:

''Technologically feasible'' refers to the demonstrated operation of carbon capture and storage technologies integrated with power production at an appropriate scale to ensure safe and reliable production of electricity with capture and storage on a widespread geographic basis. 

In other words, the carbon capture technology already has to have been deployed and working before the EPA can require it.  So some utility would apparently have to install carbon capture technology out of its loving concern for the state of the planet, rather than any statutory requirement. 

"Economically feasible" means the present discounted value of the revenue from the projected sale of electricity from a generating unit in a competitive market over the life of a unit that employs carbon capture and storage exceeds the present discounted value of the cost of the unit, including costs associated with any energy required to capture, compress, transport, and store carbon dioxide. 

That means that carbon capture has to provide the utility with a net profit over time. Unless a huge market opens up for captured carbon dioxide, it is hard to see that happening. 

In my opinion, H.R. 2127 is an exercise in the continuing Republican sport of hamstringing the EPA. However, as long as the Senate is controlled by Democrats, the odds of the bill becoming law are approximately zero. Even if enacted, though, the bill is unlikely to save many coal-fired plants, as the economics of energy production are rapidly changing.

Regardless, Coal plants are already under economic distress as shale-produced natural gas is a cheaper source of energy than coal, while carbon pollution-free wind and solar energy continue to drop in price. Renewable energy (wind, solar and geothermal) accounted for 82% of new electrical generation in the U.S. in the first three months of 2013, with the remainder supplied by natural gas, according to the Energy Infrastructure Update report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's Office of Energy Projects. There has been no new coal-powered generating capacity added this year.

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Author

Steven A. Edwards, Ph.D.