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Lignite industry says EPA’s carbon rules for coal-fired plants a ‘recipe for disaster’

BISMARCK — North Dakota’s lignite coal industry bristled Monday at the Obama administration’s plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, calling it “a recipe for disaster” that could lead to higher electricity prices and a less reliable energy grid.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever plan to cut carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants calls for reducing emissions by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Jason Bohrer, president of the Lignite Energy Council, said the industry already has deployed technology – about $2 billion worth in North Dakota in the past 10 years – to significantly reduce carbon emissions and is uncertain about how it will comply with the new standards.

“We’ve made billions of dollars of investments already, and this rule puts another mandate on us to spend billions more chasing down this perhaps unachievable target,” Bohrer said.

The Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club welcomed the EPA plan, saying it will clean up the industries that create the lion’s share of U.S. carbon pollution and also help reduce mercury, soot and smog.

Wayde Schafer, a conservation organizer for the chapter, said in a statement that the new standards will not only protect health and communities but also spur innovation and strengthen the economy.

“By tapping into clean energy like North Dakota’s abundant wind resources, we’ll create tens of thousands of American jobs,” he said. “Cutting pollution that harms our communities will also save billions of dollars in health costs, disaster cleanup and disaster recovery costs.”

The EPA’s plan gives states an interim goal to reach by 2020 and a final goal to hit by 2030.

For North Dakota, it would require cutting carbon emissions from existing coal plants to an average of 1,817 pounds per megawatt hour by 2020 and to 1,783 pounds per megawatt hour by 2030 – about 20 percent less than the current average for the state’s seven power plants that burn lignite coal.

“I don’t think we know yet if that’s workable,” Bohrer said.

Proposed rules announced last September for new coal-fired plants would limit carbon emissions even further, to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour.

The rules released Monday would give states the flexibility to develop plans to meet the EPA goals through a variety of options, including expanding their renewable energy capacity through additional wind power or other means to offset carbon emissions.

“One of the objections to that is you’re starting to look a lot like a cap-and-trade plan that Congress considered and rejected, and it is not the role of the EPA to legislate,” Bohrer said.

States must submit at least an initial plan by June 30, 2016, a year after the standards are finalized. Individual state plans would be eligible for a one-year extension and multi-state plans could get a two-year extension.

A White House news release noted “a number of common-sense measures” in North Dakota cut carbon emissions from the state’s power sector nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2011. “EPA’s flexible proposed guidelines for power plants will continue driving cost-effective measures to reduce carbon pollution in North Dakota,” the release said.

Dave Glatt, chief of the environmental health section at the North Dakota Department of Health, said the state will review the proposed standards to make sure proper emissions figures were used in EPA’s calculations.

Among the department’s questions is who will get credit for renewable energy projects such as wind towers that are in North Dakota but owned by a utility in another state, he said.

“That might come into play in a regional plan,” he said.

The short timeline also is concerning, he said, referring to the 2020 deadline.

“That isn’t that far away with the size of the plan that they’re going to be looking at,” Glatt said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the regulations could cost jobs, hinder the economy and raise prices on everything from food to heat and consumer products American families and businesses.

The EPA estimates the cost to comply with the regulations will range from $5.4 billion to $7.4 billion annually starting in 2020 and $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion annually starting in 2030. But the agency also projects the rules will provide up to $93 billion in benefits to the climate and public health and will shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by 2030 by boosting energy efficiency and reducing demand.

Hoeven warned that North Dakota would be especially hard-hit, noting the state’s coal-fired plants provide nearly 80 percent of its energy needs and the lignite industry employs more than 4,000 people directly and more than 13,000 in support and supply roles. Coal-fired plants produce about 40 percent of the nation’s power.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat and former paid board member of Dakota Gasification Co., was still reviewing the rules but said the clean-coal technology needed to reduce the carbon footprint of coal companies “won’t be developed overnight or available for use tomorrow or even next year.”

Heitkamp said she appreciated that the administration extended the public comment period for the new rule from the standard 60 days to 120 days.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican and former North Dakota utility regulator, said in a statement the EPA “has reached a new level of irresponsibility in its reckless pursuit of an extreme environmental agenda.”

Utilities such as Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which operates two coal-fired plants in west-central North Dakota, the Antelope Valley Station and Leland Olds Station, were still studying and trying to fully understand the rule on Monday.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.