EPA delays emissions caps for new power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency needs more time and will not meet its one-year deadline to impose the first-ever greenhouse gas limits on new power plants.

“We are working on the rule and no timetable has been set,” EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson wrote in an e-mail Friday. She said the agency was still reviewing more than 2 million comments on its proposal.

The EPA is likely to alter the rule in some way in an effort to ensure that it can withstand a legal challenge, according to sources familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the standard has not been finalized. One possibility could include establishing a separate standard for coal-fired power plants, as opposed to gas-fired ones.

The Washington Post reported a month ago that the agency was likely to delay the rule in order to bolster its legal case for imposing the new carbon restrictions.

The rule, which the EPA proposed a year ago and had an April 13 deadline, would require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

But some utilities have objected to the restrictions, complaining that even some natural gas plants will not be able to meet the new standards easily.

Environmentalists say they are waiting for a clear signal from the Obama administration on climate. The EPA’s acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe, told reporters this week that the agency will begin working on a rule for existing plants sometime in fiscal 2014, although he did not give a specific timeline for when such an effort would be finished.

Union of Concerned Scientists senior climate economist Rachel Cleetus wrote a blog post Friday emphasizing the importance of finalizing the new carbon limits soon so the agency can move onto capping greenhouse gas emissions from existing plants.

“We know that in the absence of congressional action, this is one of the most important things the administration can do to cut global warming emissions,” she said in an interview. “What we need to hear from them is even with this delay, they have a firm timeline and plan for delivering on the rules for new power plants and existing power plants within this fiscal year. We need to hear those specifics.”

“Missing the deadline is one thing,” Cleetus added, “but if we hear dead silence, that will be truly troubling.”

Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell &Guiliani who represents utilities affected by the rule, wrote in an e-mail that he was not surprised by the EPA’s decision. “They’re now trying to figure out whether they need to start from scratch and come up with a new proposal, or whether they can finalize some creative version of it without running afoul of the law,” he wrote. “The big problem they face is that the Clean Air Act just wasn’t designed to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.”

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