In a sweeping initiative to curb pollutants blamed for global warming, the Obama administration unveiled a plan Monday aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third by 2030.
But the EPA proposal delays the deadline for some states to begin complying until long after President Barack Obama leaves office. And it may not have much immediate impact in Tennessee and Georgia where utilities have already cut carbon emissions by 30 percent since 2005 and further cuts are planned in the next five years.
The proposed EPA regulations, expected to be finalized next year, would cut overall carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Some states will be allowed to emit more pollutants and others less, and enforcement of the new rules would come from state regulators.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves parts of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and four other Southern states, system-wide carbon emissions are currently 30 percent below 2005 levels -- and they are projected to be 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. By that year, TVA's carbon emissions will be about one-half of what they were at their peak in 1995, the utility said.
Without knowing specifics of the new rule, TVA President Bill Johnson said the new EPA rules appear to reinforce a path TVA has already been on to reduce its dependence upon coal.
"We should have a good start on this, but again the details of the rule will be important," Johnson said, adding that TVA experts are studying the rule and its future effects.
The TVA has added natural gas-fired plants and retired 14 coal-fired units while investing in emissions controls at existing plants. It also plans to bring online an additional carbon-free nuclear unit at its Watts Bar site in 2015.
TVA replaced its John Sevier Fossil Plant in East Tennessee with a gas-fired plant last year and the utility is working on a $1 billion gas plant to replace its two oldest coal-fired facilities at Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky.
But the utility still has decisions to make about the future of other coal plants, including the Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, the last remaining units at Widows Creek in Alabama and the Paradise and Shawnee plants in Kentucky. Johnson has set a long-term goal of cutting the share of TVA power generated by coal from 60 percent a decade ago and 40 percent today to only 20 percent. TVA expects to eventually get 40 percent of its power from nuclear power and 20 percent each from natural gas and renewable sources, including TVA's 29 hydroelectric dams.
Johnson said TVA will decide the fate of some coal plants before the rule is finalized since legal and congressional challenges to the new EPA rules are likely to delay their implementation. The rule "will be a consideration for us" but it probably won't drive the utility's decisions on the coal plants, Johnson said. TVA has no plans to build new coal power plants in the foreseeable future, Johnson said.
Many states will be spared from cutting a full 30 percent, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures. Kentucky has to make an 18 percent cut and Alabama has to reduce carbon emissions 27 percent, for example.
Other states have to go above the 30 percent target, such as Tennessee and Mississippi at 39 percent and Georgia at 44 percent.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new carbon controls "will drive electricity prices up and drive down job growth in many parts of the country.
"This is just one more example of the federal government expanding the big, wet blanket of burdensome regulations on our economy that put people out of work and make it harder to find a job," he said.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents many employees at coal-fired plants, also warned that shutting down coal plants could cost jobs and threaten the electricity grid with potential brownouts.
"Approximately 90 percent of the plants scheduled to close were required to run during last winter's polar vortex to prevent grid disruption," IBEW noted in a statement Monday.
But Obama, in a conference call hosted by the American Lung Association, said the plan would both shrink electricity prices and protect the health of vulnerable Americans. He scolded critics who he predicted would contend anew that the limits would crush jobs and damage the economy.
"What we've seen every time is that these claims are debunked when you actually give workers and businesses the tools and the incentives they need to innovate," Obama said.
The proposal sets off a complex regulatory process, steeped in politics, in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customized targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency, then submit those plans for approval.
"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs."
Initially, Obama wanted each state to submit its plan by June 2016. But the draft proposal shows states could have until 2017 -- and 2018, if they join with other states.
That means even if the rules survive legal and other challenges, the dust won't likely settle on this transformation until well into the next administration, raising the possibility that political dynamics in either Congress or the White House could alter the rule's course.
Although Obama doesn't need a vote in Congress to approve his plans, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have already vowed to try to block them -- including Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who faces a difficult re-election this year in coal-dependent West Virginia. Scuttling the rules could be easier if Republicans take the Senate in November and then the White House in 2016.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.