FRANKFORT — Kentucky would create coal-friendly power plant emission standards in an attempt to head off tougher federal rules under a bill passed unanimously Thursday by a House committee.
By June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose strict limits on the amounts of carbon dioxide that existing coal-fired power plants can produce.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA treats carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere — as a pollutant contributing to climate change. The EPA proposed limits for newly built power plants in September that would cut carbon dioxide emissions nearly in half, giving an advantage to natural gas, which burns cleaner.
State lawmakers say the expected EPA limits could force the retirement of coal-fired plants producing most of Kentucky's electricity, driving up power costs and hurting the economy. They're trying to get ahead of the EPA with House Bill 388, sponsored by Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, who co-owns a manufacturer of coal-mining equipment whose clients include industry giants Alliance Resource Partners and Peabody Energy.
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HB 388 would instruct the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to create a plan for existing power plants that considers the economic impact of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, such as higher electric bills and lost jobs; that sets "reasonable" and "flexible" standards for plants; and that doesn't require switching from coal to other fuels, such as natural gas, or the use of nascent technologies, such as carbon capture and storage.
The House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment, of which Gooch is chairman, passed the bill Thursday, sending it to the full House. Nobody spoke in opposition.
"I think we all know that coal is the most affordable, reliable, available fuel source we have," Gooch said. "We're not just gonna roll over and play dead."
Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett praised Gooch for sponsoring the bill. The EPA standards will make it difficult for anyone to burn coal, Bissett said.
"States that use coal are going to be economically devastated by what's happening," Bissett told the House committee.
The Clean Air Act's seldom-used Section 111(d) allows states to craft their own plans for emission limits on existing pollution sources. However, the EPA must approve a state's plans.
Gooch acknowledged that a legal fight could erupt if the EPA decides that Kentucky's plan falls short of the agency's standards. Already, environmental and industry groups are arguing over how much legal authority the EPA has under Section 111(d) to reject a state's emissions standards.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in several cases questioning President Barack Obama's executive power to apply the Clean Air Act to stationary sources, such as power plants, that emit greenhouse gases.
"The president has said he wants the EPA to work with the states on this. I guess here's where we see if he'll stand by his word," Gooch said.
The lawmaker said he and other Kentucky lawmakers don't fear carbon dioxide as the EPA does.
"I'm not convinced this whole issue of carbon dioxide — that anthropogenic global warming is a real, man-made threat," Gooch said. "Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas ... and you get a lot more methane with natural gas, from extracting it and from burning it."
The Energy and Environment Cabinet on Thursday said Gooch's bill "may be premature."
"The EPA has not yet issued greenhouse gas guidelines for existing sources," said cabinet spokesman Dick Brown. "Therefore, the bill may be premature and may limit flexibility in developing a state-specific plan that would be approvable by the EPA."
In October, cabinet Secretary Len Peters submitted a white paper to the EPA laying out a potential framework for Kentucky to comply with forthcoming limits on existing power plants. Peters said an "emissions rate standard" that tied allowable pounds of carbon dioxide to megawatt hours of electricity production, which was the model the EPA used in September for new power plants, could hurt the state's economy.
Instead, Peters proposed a "mass-emission standard" establishing a baseline level of pollution — in this case, 2005 carbon dioxide emissions from Kentucky power plants — and committing to specific reductions in future years. Kentucky would try to reduce its carbon dioxide output at existing plants by 17 percent in 2020, by 28 percent in 2025 and by 38 percent in 2030, with an eventual goal of 80 percent reduction by 2050, Peters said.
Kentucky "can realistically and cost-effectively" generate 15 percent of its electricity by 2030 through renewable sources, such as wind, water and solar, Peters said. It also can make greater use of natural gas and get credit for "carbon offsets" by reforesting tens of thousands of acres of reclaimed surface mines because trees absorb carbon dioxide, he said.