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In an effort to cut carbon pollution and combat climate change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed Clean Air Act standards for new natural gas and coal-fired power plants.

According to the EPA, power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the U.S., accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Although the country has limits in place for arsenic, mercury and lead pollution from power plants, the agency notes there are currently no national limits on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. The EPA adds it will issue proposed standards for existing power plants by June 1, 2014.

The agency says its proposal achieves the first milestone outlined in President Barack Obama's June 25 memorandum to the EPA on "Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards,” a major part of the president's Climate Action Plan. (The June climate plan also set a new goal to double U.S. renewable energy generation by 2020.)

Under the proposal, the EPA says new large natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, while new small natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. New coal-fired units would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour and would have the option to meet a somewhat tighter limit if they choose to average emissions over multiple years, the EPA adds.

The agency says these standards would help ensure that the power plants of the future use cleaner energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, advanced coal technology, nuclear power, and renewable energy like wind and solar.

Nonetheless, Frank Maisano, energy policy analyst at law firm Bracewell Giuliani, believes the potential crackdown on new power plants may not necessarily lead to a boost in renewables anytime soon.

"It won't have much impact on renewable energy in the short term because of low gas prices," he says, adding that the regulations could begin to have some impact when gas prices rise and volatility returns.

Complicating matters, he predicts opponents will tie up the ruling in courts. "It will likely face daunting legal challenges that could undo anything they finalize," he says. "Legal challenges always occur surrounding controversial rules like this. It is a near certainty."

Among the utility industry, reactions to the EPA proposal have been mixed.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents investor-owned electric companies, generally supports the proposal and says it is consistent with the recommendations the group made to the EPA last year.

Meanwhile, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) - representing the nation's private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives - is upset about the potential limits on coal plants.

"NRECA and its member co-ops are disappointed to learn that the administration has abandoned its 'all of the above' energy strategy and embraced an 'all but one' approach that restricts the future use of coal to generate affordable electricity," says Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the NRECA.

"NRECA urges the administration to reconsider this proposal and focus on working with co-ops as we continue to reduce power plant emissions, increase efficiency and develop affordable new technologies," Emerson adds.

The EPA says it is seeking comment and information on the proposal, including holding a public hearing, and will take that input fully into account as it completes the rulemaking process. The comment period is open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.


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