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Press Photo by Bryan Horwath With Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., right, and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., left, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., talks about energy issues Friday at the Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah.

War on coal? EPA chief says Obama, agency not out to destroy industry

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War on coal? EPA chief says Obama, agency not out to destroy industry
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BEULAH — If there’s a war on coal, the top environmental regulator in the nation said that she isn’t waging it.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said Friday cries that the Obama Administration is moving to wipe out the coal industry are hollow.

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“We are trying to do everything we can to make sure that we are listening to the president when he says this is an all of the above administration,” McCarthy said. “That is not rhetoric — that is a policy. The EPA is staying in its lane and looking at carbon as a pollutant. We are applying the Clean Air Act, hopefully as flexibly as we can, but we also recognize that carbon is a pollutant that contributes to perhaps the most significant public health challenge of our time, which is climate change.”

The EPA head met with coal industry leaders included the North Dakota Congressional Delegation and energy industry leaders at the Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah.

President Barack Obama announced in June his plan to reduce carbon emissions, which would include putting heavier regulation on the coal industry. The announcement came in response to climate change, the president said. He cited hotter than normal weather in the summer, adding that U.S. leaders need to do something before it is too late.

But North Dakota politicians and coal leaders fear this plan could cost jobs for the industry. Some have said that the Obama administration has declared a war on coal.

When it comes to the war on coal analogy that has been emphasized many times over by the North Dakota senators and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., however, McCarthy was as blunt as can be when she answered the question as to whether she believed there was one.

“No,” the administrator said.

‘Don’t worry’

McCarthy faced direct questions relating to the future of the coal industry in North Dakota, where the EPA is generally viewed by citizens and politicians as an over-reaching and out-of-touch regulatory body.

Much to the chagrin of many industry leaders, the EPA in September proposed new standards that would limit carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants built in the U.S. (the proposed rule is in the midst of a public comment period that will end May 9).

A new set of rules for carbon-tightening in existing power plants is expected to be announced in June, McCarthy said.

“I know there are significant concerns about the rules that we’re moving forward with to reduce carbon pollution,” McCarthy said. “I feel very strongly that the science is clear on climate change and the impacts of carbon pollution. I know that the (President Obama) shares that view, but he has also told the EPA, and put it in writing, to move ahead with this rule-making.”

As a member of Obama’s Cabinet, McCarthy said that she also knows the president “recognizes all the considerations that need to be given to ensure that the economy continues to grow and flexibility needed” within the rules to allow for differences in different states.

“We’re here to tell states not to worry,” McCarthy said. “States will be the ones that will develop plans on how to take a look at EPA’s guidelines and apply them and I’m going to respect that. In the end, you’re going to have to be at the table, participating in the implementation of this rule and it had best be implemented.”

‘Scared to death’

Basin Electric CEO Paul Sukut said more time is needed to develop the technologies needed to move forward in the large scale way with certain carbon capture and sequestration techniques, which are being pushed by the EPA.

“On the technology curve, we’re way on the back end,” Sukut told McCarthy. “We’ve got a long ways to go and it’s going to take time for us to get where we need to be. We’re going to need patience.”

Though McCarthy said that there “is a place in the United States for the continued use of coal for many decades,” she also added that she sees no reason why new coal-fired facilities can’t include CCS systems.

After about 30 minutes of roundtable discussion, however, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said what many at the table seem to have been hinting at.

“There’s a whole lot of people out there who don’t want these incremental steps to succeed because they don’t want coal to succeed,” Heitkamp said. “I don’t think anybody in this room should disagree with that. A lot of people don’t want coal to be in the mix. When you look at the kind of regulation out there, and lack of reward for any incremental movement that would actually achieve some results, these folks here are scared to death to do it. The environment we’re in politically is the ‘hell no to coal environment.’”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., took it a step further.

“When it comes to CO2, it seems to me you need to ask people like the folks in this room what’s achievable before you go forward with a standard,” Hoeven remarked to McCarthy. “For you to go forward with a CO2 standard that they can’t meet, it doesn’t work. So, you can say ‘coal is going to be part of the mix,’ but, if you come out with a standard they can’t achieve, coal won’t be part of the mix. What are you going to do?”

Nothing in stone yet

Heitkamp said that stringent new regulations on coal could lead to higher prices for consumers, adding that low-income citizens and people on fixed budgets would be hit the hardest by such potential cost increases.

PSC Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said she and her colleagues oppose the EPA’s proposed regulations on carbon emissions, agreeing with Hoeven and Heitkamp that they would threaten to raise energy prices for consumers.

“These proposed regulations stand to fundamentally change one of the pillars of our economy — the electric system,” Fedorchak said. “These changes need to be thoughtful, realistic, affordable, and set on a reasonable timeframe that industry can safely accommodate. This is not the approach the EPA is taking with current proposals.”

Though she heard from plenty of skeptics, McCarthy said nothing has been set in stone relating to the emission rules.

“We’re in the middle of the comment period for the one and I haven’t even started on the second,” McCarthy said. “What I’m asking you all to do is to just do what you’re doing today — be as honest as you can, send in your comments, and we will consider them. Frankly, you need to be as upfront as you possibly can on the existing facilities about what concerns you. The last thing we want is to have this rule impact the ability for the economy to grow in any state, never mind nationally. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

The Dickinson Press assistant editor April Baumgarten contributed to this report.

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Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
(701) 456-1207
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