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White House delays new rules on power plant emissions opposed by Blunt

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has been a leading critic of regulations proposed by the Obama administration.
Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

Last Thursday, just as members of Congress and Americans across the country were getting ready to begin the Memorial Day weekend, the White House quietly announced that new rules to reduce carbon emissions from new, modified and existing electric power plants would not be finalized until August, at the earliest. The rules require fossil-fuel burning power plants, most notably coal-fired plants, to reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years.

Just a week earlier, legislation to stop implementation of the rules was introduced by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.,  28 other Republicans and one Democrat – U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who’s also a former governor of the state known for its robust coal mining industry.  The bill would

  • block the Environmental Protection Agency from mandating what sponsors call “unproven technology,”
  • extend compliance dates for existing power plants pending court rulings,
  • allow states to opt out of the rules to protect rate payers,
  • require the EPA to develop state by state models for achieving the Clean Air Act objectives it seeks.

“Power is a whole lot cleaner than it was a decade ago or a decade and a half ago, said Blunt. “We’re now at the point of (asking) ‘Can we afford the next step in clean power?’" He said the administration’s “war on coal” is bad for the economy and that while Missouri no longer mines coal, the administration’s rules to reduce greenhouse gases amounts to a “war on coal-fired plants” in the state.
Blunt said some of the state’s coal-fired power plants are not yet paid for and requiring them to meet the new standards would require rate increases. “We don’t need to see our utility bills go up by double digits or even double in some cases for some individuals in some states,” Blunt continued. “Families that are most hurt by this rule are families that can barely pay their utility bill now.”

Janet McCabe, the EPA’s assistant acting administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, disputes that claim. She told St. Louis Pubic Radio the types of “technologies and approaches” that are in use to reduce emissions “will actually lead to reductions in energy use and reductions in actual bills, and will not, when you look at it across the country … have the kind of rate impacts that people have been talking about.”

Blunt and other sponsors argue the technology the EPA is pushing is “unproven” and would be costly to implement. “So, what would happen if the EPA got its way?” Blunt asked. “In some cases you’d be paying for the perfectly good current power plant … you’d then also be paying for the failure of the technology that’s not available … if the EPA is wrong.” After that Blunt said, municipal, co-op, and commercial power plants would still have to pay “to comply with this rule.”

McCabe said the rule identifies four technologies and approaches “the utility world is already doing” and “can do” to significantly reduce carbon emissions between now and 2030.

McCabe said the agency’s analysis projects it will cost between $7 billion and $9 billion to implement the rules over the next 15 years. “We predict that when you put all the (reduced) carbon and other health benefits together, we’d get between $55 (billion) and $93 billion worth of benefits… something on the order of $7 dollars in health benefits for every dollar that is invested,” in reaching the standards.

The administration said if carbon emissions were reduced Americans would incur fewer medical costs for respiratory illnesses, especially for young children and the elderly, those “most vulnerable” according to an administration document finding increased risks from greenhouse gases attributable to human activities.

A finding of endangerment

In 2009, less than a year after taking office, the Obama administration, issued an endangerment finding that said the accumulation of greenhouse gases, influenced by human activity, is “very likely (90 to 99 percent probability) the cause of most of the observed global warming over the last 50 years.” 

A supporting document lists key effects of climate change observed to date and projected to occur in the future as “more frequent and intense heat waves, more severe wildfires, degraded air quality, heavier and more frequent downpours and flooding, increased drought, greater sea level rise and storm surge, more intense storms, harm to water resources, continued ocean acidification, harm to agriculture, and harm to wildlife and ecosystems.”

Other consequences include “premature deaths, illness, damage to property and infrastructure.” It says the “most vulnerable” -- including children, the elderly and the poor -- face “disproportionate risks.” Finally it says a supporting consideration is that impacts of climate change on “certain regions of the world (potentially leading, for example, to food scarcity, conflicts or mass migration) may exacerbate problems that raise humanitarian, trade and national security issues for the United States.”

It is this finding the administration uses as the basis for its push to enact clean power policies before it leaves office in January 2017. The EPA has 106 rules in the pipeline – 54 in the final stage of rule-making, 50  proposed and two in what is known as the “pre-rule” stage.

Blunt is one of the highest profile lawmakers on Capitol Hill to question the administration’s rule-makings on a wide variety of issues including the enforcement of provisions under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

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