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Symposium to focus on proposed EPA carbon rules

Industry spokesman says standards would effectively ban new coal-fired power plants

BISMARCK – North Dakota utility regulators will host a meeting here Wednesday to discuss proposed federal standards on carbon emissions that a coal industry spokesman says would effectively ban new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new standards in September to cut carbon emissions from new power plants, the first major provision of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan announced in June.

At the same time, the EPA said it also would establish carbon standards for existing power plants through a section of the federal Clean Air Act enforced by states. Those proposed standards are due by June 1.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission’s symposium Wednesday at the Capitol aims to shed more light on the proposed standards and their potential effects on power companies and consumers.

“These are fundamental changes, and they have significant impacts and significant costs,” Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said Monday.

Eighty-two percent of North Dakota’s net electricity generation came from coal in 2010, while 12 percent came from wind energy and 6 percent from hydroelectric power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The proposed standard for new coal-fired power plants would limit carbon dioxide emissions to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour – less than half the current average. Large natural gas-fired plants would have to meet a limit of 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour.

Currently, U.S. coal-fired power plants emit carbon dioxide at an average rate of 2,249 pounds per megawatt hour, compared with 1,672 pounds per megawatt hour from oil-fired plants and 1,135 pounds per megawatt hour from natural gas-fired plants, according to the EPA.

North Dakota’s seven coal-fired plants emit carbon dioxide at about the same rate as the national average, said Steve Van Dyke, spokesman for the Lignite Energy Council, which has 382 members representing coal mines, power plants, contractors and suppliers.

Van Dyke said no commercially available, proven technology exists to meet the proposed standard for new coal-fired plants.

“It’s basically a de facto prohibition on building new power plants,” he said.

The proposed rules were published in the Federal Register on Jan. 8. On Wednesday, EPA Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath will outline the proposed rules and timelines for public input.

The symposium, which starts at 9 a.m., also will include a public comment period at 11:30 a.m., during which PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said he expects to hear from both supporters and opponents of stricter carbon regulations.  Afternoon presenters will talk about the latest clean-coal technology and how carbon regulations could affect the reliability of the nation’s power supply.

Fedorchak said she would prefer to see the EPA set a more reasonable timeframe that allows technology to advance and encourages more investment in clean-coal and carbon-capture technology in order to make reliable coal-fired generation viable and affordable while still meeting environmental goals.

“I think we can have both,” she said.

Kalk said it would be interesting if North Dakota could build something like the Kemper County Energy Facility, a demonstration project in Mississippi. The coal gasification plant is designed to capture at least 65 percent of the carbon dioxide produced, resulting in emissions comparable to a similarly sized natural gas-fired plant.

“I’m hoping we can find some type of win-win solution down the road that meets all the goals and still keeps our reliability and our costs down,” he said.