WASHINGTON – The White House proposed strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants Friday but pledged to work with Maine and other states already in the carbon-regulation business as the Obama administration decides how to target older facilities.
The administration’s plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to have any immediate impacts on Maine because there are no major power plants under development in the state. The rules will apply to both natural gas-fired and coal-fired power plants but will be most costly for coal plants, which will require expensive technology to capture carbon emissions.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose emissions standards for existing power plants by next June. As the EPA develops those standards, the agency will consult with the nine Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that have been regulating power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions for five years.
“Those conversations with states are just starting, and they will continue in more depth as EPA develops carbon pollution reduction guidelines for existing plants,” the EPA said in a statement Friday. “The president and the (EPA) administrator are very aware of the ground-breaking work being done at the state and local level to reduce carbon emissions. The agency will seek to build on that work.”
The Northeastern program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, is a market-based approach to regulation. RGGI capped carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels and then required the plants to purchase credits for each ton of carbon the facilities emit. The credits are then traded on a carbon market like other commodities.
Carbon dioxide emissions are down 35 percent from the initial benchmark for the RGGI states. Proceeds from the sales of carbon credits, or offsets, has generated roughly $1.4 billion for the states. In Maine, that money is funneled largely into energy efficiency, conservation and weatherization programs.
Those involved in RGGI in Maine – both from government and industry – said they hope the EPA will take the program into account as it considers standards for existing facilities.
“We would anticipate and hope that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program will satisfy some of those requirements, if not all,” said Marc Cone, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality. Cone said his office received a request Thursday for a meeting with EPA officials to discuss the issue.
David Littell, a commissioner of the Maine Public Utilities Commission who is vice chairman of the RGGI board of directors, said it is “likely but not certain” that what the RGGI states are doing now will be consistent with the EPA’s rules. What is clear, Littell said, is that the Obama administration plans to build upon RGGI and a similar program in Western states.
The EPA said Friday that any regulation of existing power plants will be less stringent than the standards for new coal- or gas-fired facilities and would be “flexible, account for regional diversity” and allow the U.S. “to continue utilizing every fuel source available.”
Six power plants in Maine are currently regulated under RGGI: Wyman’s Station in Yarmouth, Independence Energy in Veazie, Westbrook Energy Center, Rumford Power, and the co-generation plants operated by Verso Paper in Bucksport and Jay.
Verso spokesman Bill Cohen said that, at first blush, the EPA’s pending rules would likely have “minimal impact on us because we have already made a lot of these changes.” Verso’s Bucksport facility has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent since 1994 while increasing electricity generation by 50 percent, Cohen said.
Verso also generates 65 percent of its on-site energy at its three mills — in Bucksport, Jay and Quinnesec, Mich. — from carbon-neutral woody biomass, he said. Bucksport and Jay also burn natural gas.
Cone and Littell said the EPA’s emissions limits on new power plants in other states will also improve air quality in Maine because the state is on the receiving end of pollution from upwind states.
Maine environmental groups cheered the EPA’s decision.
“It makes no sense to allow power plants to spew unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air,” Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said in a statement. “The buildup of carbon pollution creates warmer temperatures, which then create more ozone — also called smog. More smog means more childhood asthma attacks and more complications for people with lung or heart disease. It’s a deadly cycle.”
Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Maine is already seeing the impacts of a warming climate, such as Lyme disease-carrying ticks spreading farther north and changes in commercial fisheries.
“We certainly think RGGI provides a model for what should happen in the rest of the country,” Pohlmann said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: