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Battle lines drawn over new coal rules


Conservationists and Republicans are anticipating a heated fight later this month when the Obama administration is expected to issue new limits on carbon emissions from power plants — a key piece of the president's second-term agenda to combat climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency has until Sept. 20 to complete regulations that would reduce carbon dioxide from new power plants. The rules are expected to make it difficult for coal-burning plants to operate without adopting new technology that opponents say is costly and unproven.

Environmental advocates are celebrating the direction President Obama has taken after four years of ignoring a campaign pledge to curb global warming. But it has angered Republicans and some Democrats in coal-producing states who have accused the administration of unfairly singling out a bountiful native resource that still produces about 40 percent of America’s electricity.

“This administration has decided it wants to set a standard in the world regardless of the impact it will have on our economy,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. “If you're really serious about [global warming], this is a worldwide issue and it has to be solved with action from other countries.”

The basis for the new regulations is likely to be a 2012 proposal from the EPA that would prevent large power plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. It’s a standard that natural gas plants should be able to meet but that Republicans say will ensure no coal plants will be built in the future.

Whitfield plans to introduce legislation that would create different emission standards for coal and natural gas and believes it will pass the House. The Democratic-controlled Senate, however, is unlikely to take it up.

Republicans expect a national dialogue over coal to resonate through the 2014 midterm elections. The debate will begin in earnest on June 1, the deadline Obama set for the EPA to announce new standards for existing power plants, a far more controversial directive.

Just two in five Americans see global warming as a major threat compared to 54 percent of the world population that sees it as a problem. The administration has stood its ground, arguing that an overwhelming percentage of scientists believe that climate change is caused by humans and that it will have catastrophic repercussions in the 21st century.

The EPA insists the standards won’t make coal obsolete. An agency spokesman said the administration is targeting existing power plants because they are “among the biggest emitters of this harmful pollution.”

Republicans are mobilizing to put the issue at the center of congressional races in the major coal-producing states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said energy is an issue where the GOP believes it can shuck its “party of the rich” stigma by siding with low- and middle-class workers hurt by lost coal jobs and higher energy rates.

Environmental activists are pushing back by charging that so-called climate change deniers are ignoring the scientific evidence. Obama’s political arm, Organizing for America, recently started a national campaign challenging global warming skeptics, and conservation groups plan an expensive effort in 2014 to defend to support the EPA's new rules.

“We’re going to certainly be doing everything we can to defend the EPA,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a lobbyist at the League of Conservation Voters, “and make sure members of Congress understand how important these [new coal regulations] are.”