WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday said it would reopen the possibility of regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, tossing aside a December Bush administration memorandum that said the agency would not limit those emissions.
The decision could mark the first step toward the regulation of greenhouse gases emitted by coal plants, an issue that has been hotly contested by the coal industry and environmentalists since April 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.
The industry has vigorously opposed efforts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, asserting that this should be left to policy set by Congress. Moreover, current technology for capturing carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and virtually untested.
Environmental groups, however, say that building new coal plants with conventional technology locks in new greenhouse gas emissions for the entire 30- to 40-year lifetimes of the power plants, making it difficult to slow climate change. They have been urging the Obama administration and state governments to use the Supreme Court ruling to block air permits for new coal-fired power plants and rely on renewable energy and energy efficiency to meet power needs.
In response to a Sierra Club petition over an air permit for a coal plant in Bonanza, Utah, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said that the agency would take a new look at the issue and solicit public comments. Jackson added that the memorandum issued by Bush’s EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, two months ago should not limit states weighing air permits for new coal plants. She said that “permitting authorities should not assume that the memorandum is the final word on the appropriate interpretation of Clean Air Act requirements.”
At the same time, however, Jackson did not issue a stay on the Bush administration memorandum. And coal industry advocates found some hope in that.
Washington lawyer Jeffrey Holmstead, a former EPA official in the Bush administration, said “it’s kind of a clever procedural move that allows the Obama folks to say that they are distancing themselves from the Johnson memo without changing anything. It says they need to go through a rule-making process to figure out how they are going to regulate carbon.”
“It couldn’t be a bigger turnaround from what the Bush administration tried to force on them at the last minute,” said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. “It reinforces the original Bonanza decision and throws all these projects up in the air.”