EPA rolls out landmark climate rules

sfretwell@thestate.com, rburris@thestate.comJune 2, 2014 

The federal government’s most sweeping attempt to curtail carbon dioxide pollution sparked predictions Monday of economic misery and higher utility rates in South Carolina, a state with a legacy of fighting tougher regulation of industries.

Unveiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plan would require a 51 percent reduction in the rate at which carbon dioxide is released from power plants in the Palmetto State, utilities and environmental groups said.

While environmentalists praised the EPA plan as a way to attack climate change, critics said the cuts in South Carolina are more than most states – and that’s a significant cause for concern.

“This is an oppressive requirement, and greater than the percent reductions required of 47 other states,’’ state-owned Santee Cooper said in a statement. “If it stands, this standard will hurt South Carolina’s economy by driving up power costs and driving away industry and the jobs they provide.’’

The state’s Electric Cooperatives and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson also questioned the need for the tighter carbon rules. The cooperatives released a statement saying the new rules could raise power rates 50 percent or more.

“One does not have to be opposed to controlling carbon dioxide emissions to also acknowledge that it will be expensive,’’ said Mike Couick, the cooperatives’ chief executive.

Wilson, a Republican, said his office is reviewing the EPA’s proposed regulations. He said he is “deeply concerned’’ that the rules will carry a “tremendous” cost to the state and its economy through higher power bills.

Wilson did not say whether his office planned to fight the rules, but he and other state leaders are no strangers to criticism of the EPA.

Wilson criticized federal greenhouse gas rules last year, saying they could hurt businesses. U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also ripped a previous set of greenhouse gas rules proposed about four years ago for industries, including new power plants, saying they would unduly regulate small businesses.

SCE&G, which serves central and eastern South Carolina, and Duke Energy, in the Upstate, said Monday they were still assessing the new rules.

Complaints in South Carolina were not unexpected, but EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said they’re unfounded.

For years, utilities and other businesses have complained about the high cost of complying with air pollution regulations, saying it would hurt the economy. But each time, they’ve complied with the rules that have led to cleaner air across the United States, she said.

“For over four decades, EPA has cut air pollution by 70 percent and the economy has now more than tripled, all the while providing the power we need to keep America strong,’’ she said. “Climate action doesn’t actually dull America’s competitive edge, it sharpens it. It spurs ingenuity, innovation and investment.’’

The new EPA rules require cuts in carbon dioxide power plant pollution of 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. The rules apply to existing coal plants. Each state would develop a plan to meet the 30 percent reduction, rather than the EPA forcing a specific method on states. Federal officials say this will give states flexibility.

No one expects the new carbon rules to solve the world’s problem with climate change, but backers say it will show that the United States, a major industrialized nation, is willing to do its share after years of tepid action to address global warming. Carbon dioxide is one of the main sources contributing to climate change.

A recent EPA report found that climate change is not only predicted to worsen in the future, it is hurting the United States already. South Carolina is among the states experiencing rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions, both of which are tied to rising Earth temperatures.

In 2012, according to EPA, South Carolina power plants and major industry emitted more than 40 million metric tons of carbon pollution – equal to the output of more than 9 million cars, the agency said.

The power sector in the state was responsible in 2012 for 33 million metric tons of the carbon pollution targeted in the EPA proposal. The state’s emission rate was 1,587 pounds of pollution per megawatt hour, and EPA wants to lower the rate to 772 pounds per megawatt by 2030.

Supporters of the EPA proposal, which must go through a public review process, said it will encourage utilities to move away from coal-fired power toward cleaner sources of energy, such as solar, wind and other renewables.

South Carolina is moving toward rules that would increase the use of solar power. At the same time, SCE&G is spending nearly $10 billion building two nuclear reactors at its existing atomic energy site in Fairfield County. Unlike most states, where nuclear projects have languished, South Carolina’s plants will help the state comply with the carbon reduction rules.

Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, said South Carolina should be able to meet the EPA’s rules 2030. The state already has reduced carbon pollution by about 30 percent since 2005, he said.

“The Palmetto State is pivoting to cleaner, more secure energy sources that sharpen our competitive edge, make us more secure, and reduce impacts to resources like our beautiful beaches and productive farms,” Holman said.

But Mollie Gore, a Santee Cooper spokeswoman, said efforts to reduce carbon pollution by utilities didn’t get enough credit when the EPA was developing the carbon rules.

“I think the surprise is South Carolina is being asked to do so much more – when I think we’re already leading the country in terms of adding new, nuclear generation,” one of EPA’s suggested remedies for reducing greenhouse emissions, Gore said.

Santee Cooper has “proactively” cut emission levels 23 percent since 2005 by closing coal-fired plants, establishing energy efficiency programs, adding renewable generation and using more natural gas generation, Gore said.

SCE&G officials noted that they will soon have only three coal-fired power stations. The company had six at one time but has been closing the older, smaller ones. The company’s 250 megawatt facility in Irmo, for instance, is being converted to natural gas.

In 2013, just 24 percent of SCE&G power output came from non-greenhouse emitting sources, the utility said. But after 2019, when the second of two nuclear reactors at the Summer plant is scheduled to go into operation, more than 62 percent of its power generation will come from non-greenhouse emitting sources, including nuclear, natural gas and coal.

The utility got 44 percent of its power generation from coal plants in 2013, which will be reduced to 24 percent in 2019, SCE&G said.

“We understand at this point these are proposed rules, that there will be a process by which our company and others, states and other entity’s affected by this will have an opportunity to provide feedback before anything is actually finalized,” said Eric Boomhower, SCANA public affairs manager.

“I’m sure that will be an active process.”

North Carolina-based Duke Energy, meanwhile, said it, too, was in process of reviewing the EPA proposal and was uncertain how it might affect their operations. The company has one operating coal plant in South Carolina, but the Anderson County facility is used sparingly and is scheduled to close.

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