WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a historic step on Tuesday in the fight against climate change, proposing the first limits of greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants.
The new rule probably would make new coal-fired power plants too expensive after this year. It wouldn't apply to some 15 power plants that are expected to break ground in the next 12 months. After that, however, coal-fired plants would have to capture and store some of their carbon dioxide emissions, a practice that's so costly it isn't in commercial use anywhere.
Natural gas plants belch only about half the emissions of coal plants and would not need any additional equipment to meet the new standard. The nation's utilities have been moving toward natural gas to fuel new plants anyway because the use of hydraulic fracturing has greatly expanded the nation's gas supply and reduced prices.
This is the first time that the United States has ever proposed any limits on greenhouse gases from industrial sources. Republicans in Congress and their business allies promised to fight the EPA rule, calling it hostile to abundant coal and too costly. Environmentalists and health groups cheered it.
The standard will have limited impact, however, because it won't apply to existing power plants, the biggest industrial source of greenhouse gases.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency has no plans to address emissions from existing plants. U.S. power plants produced 2.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, about one-third of the nation's total emissions.
Coal now generates 45 percent of electricity. The department expects it will still provide 29 percent in 2035.
Republicans, including Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on energy and power, brushed away Jackson's assurances.
"President Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are circumventing the will of Congress and the American people by moving forward with a regulation that threatens our most abundant, reliable and affordable domestic electricity source — coal," Whitfield said.