W.Va. at climate change crossroads as EPA power plant rules loom

Last June, on a warm day on the campus of Georgetown University, President Obama took off his suit jacket and launched into his most significant speech to date about the dangers human society faces from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere. Wiping sweat from his forehead, Obama promised serious new action “for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans.”

On Monday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will make good on part of that promise. The EPA is scheduled to announce a proposal for the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from electrical power plants, the source of nearly 40 percent of U.S. global warming pollution.

In West Virginia, longtime political leaders and coal industry defenders didn’t wait to read the EPA proposal before they harshly attacked it. Last Thursday, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., took to the House floor to blast a plan he hadn’t even seen.

“Even though we don’t have the details of the rule yet, from everything we know, we can be sure of this: It will be very bad for jobs,” Rahall said. “The only real question is where, on a scale from devastating to a death blow, the new rule will fall.”

But not everybody — not even everyone connected to the coal industry — is being so quick to dismiss the EPA’s proposal before it’s even made public.

West Virginia’s two biggest power companies, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, have publicly taken a more cautious tone, saying they are waiting to see the details and are hopeful that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy will follow through on her promises to give states and utilities enough time and flexibility to meet the new carbon pollution rule.

And some citizen groups, environmental advocates and others are trying to nudge the state’s political discussion toward a less-hostile approach to dealing with climate change, and are highlighting the new EPA proposal as a crossroads in the long-standing problem of trying to diversify the economy in West Virginia’s coalfield communities.

“We need less political posturing and more dialogue and action,” said lawyer Tom Rodd, project director for the West Virginia Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative. Rodd, a longtime state civil rights, consumer and environmental advocate, has organized a forum next weekend at Blackwater Falls to discuss climate change’s impact on the state and possible paths forward.

“People in West Virginia, including our political leaders, are coming to understand a simple truth: human-caused global warming and climate change are real, global greenhouse emissions have to be reduced, and we have choices,” Rodd said last week. “This understanding is causing people to come together to work for climate and energy solutions that benefit West Virginia.”

Monday’s announcement from the EPA comes after decades of inaction on the larger causes of global warming, and as the world’s scientists provide ever more solid evidence that swift and dramatic cuts in greenhouse pollution are needed to try to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Already, the EPA is reviewing a proposed rule aimed at limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. In conjunction with his speech last June, Obama ordered the EPA to propose a rule for existing power plants by June 2014 and finalize that rule by June 2015. Obama told the EPA to “develop approaches that allow the use of market-based instruments, performance standards and other regulatory flexibilities.” He also instructed the agency to work with other federal and state agencies “to promote the reliable and affordable provision of electric power through the continued development and deployment of cleaner technologies, and by increasing energy efficiency.”

While think tanks, environmental groups and industry trade associations — not to mention herds of national news media — have spent months deconstructing every word out of the EPA for hint of what might be in the agency’s new rules, many families in Southern West Virginia’s coalfields are hurting. Beaten down by cheap natural gas, and faced with dwindling reserves of easy-to-reach coal, mine operators have been shutting down and laying off workers.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that while there are many factors involved, new carbon pollution standards aren’t likely to help the situation.

“Everybody is waiting for the hammer to fall,” Raney said. “We’re anticipating the worst.”

Critics of the industry’s “war on coal” campaign against Obama and the EPA are quick to note that government and private forecasts show that coal production in Southern West Virginia appears headed toward a long and steep decline, even without any action by the EPA to force emissions reductions.

“Even without these carbon pollution limits, West Virginia coal jobs would continue to decline because of growing competition with other coal-producing regions and shale gas,” said Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, which has advocated for more effort to diversify coalfield economies. “We’re all for creating jobs and building a strong economy, but fighting a losing battle against new pollution rules is not going to get us there.”

Last fall, Boettner’s group joined with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a forum that brought together business boosters, community activists and a few political leaders to start coming up with a better response to climate change and other challenges facing West Virginia’s coalfields.

“The transition to a clean-energy economy is a frightening prospect for states and communities firmly rooted in the fossil-fuel economy,” West Virginia native Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a report on that meeting. “Partly as a result, debate about our nation’s energy policy has become toxic in West Virginia and the broader Appalachian region.”

While the overall discussion of such issues is driven, at least in part, by campaign consultants in tough races like Rahall’s re-election effort, some of the major players in West Virginia climate change policies or actions are taking a more moderate approach.

One story last week in The New York Times featured quotes from AEP and FirstEnergy, speaking in support of the concept of addressing carbon dioxide emissions through a market-based cap-and-trade program, a mechanism many observers believe is sure to be part of the EPA’s proposal.

“We view cap and trade as having a lot of benefits,” AEP’s vice president of environmental services, John McManus, told the Times. “There’s important design considerations that would have to be factored in, to consider each state’s circumstances. But we think it’s definitely worth looking at. It could keep the cost down. It would allow us to keep coal units running for a more extended period. There are a lot of advantages.”

Anthony J. Alexander, president and CEO of FirstEnergy, told the paper, “By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost. The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.”

In discussions with the Sunday Gazette-Mail, AEP and FirstEnergy officials also noted that their companies already have made significant strides in curbing their greenhouse gas emissions. A report last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups noted such strides, and said they show the power industry “is already shifting toward a combination of increased efficiency and lower-carbon fuel sources.”

Over the long term, though, for the coal industry to remain a significant part of the energy mix in a low-carbon economy, power companies are going to have to deploy carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology at coal-fired generating stations.

In arguing against EPA action on carbon dioxide emissions, coal backers complain that the technology isn’t ready yet — and that the federal government needs to do more to support research and development of it. Ironically, those same coal backers fought vigorously to defeat the Waxman-Markey climate bill, a measure that contained billions of dollars in CCS money. With that bill defeated, and congressional action to reduce emissions unlikely, Obama turned to an EPA rule — a mechanism that, alone, can’t provide the financial help industry officials say CCS needs.

United Mine Workers union officials didn’t officially endorse Waxman-Markey, but they said the bill contained enough help for CCS that “the future of coal will be intact.” Writing last week in the comments section of the Gazette-Mail’s “Coal Tattoo” blog, UMW spokesman Phil Smith said, “It’s important to remember that our statement regarding the Waxman-Markey bill in 2010 was directly related to the billions included in that legislation for developing carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial scale. There will not be anything like that in the upcoming existing source rule from the EPA.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.

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