Editor's note: This article is part a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal's Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon.
The coal industry is making a last-ditch appeal to the Obama administration to loosen its strict proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
A team from the National Mining Association presented their case at the White House regulatory review office last week, asking for power companies to be allowed to use off-the-shelf technology instead of requiring much more costly—and much cleaner—technology that has not yet been commercially proven.
The group's lobbyist, Bruce Walzman; its lawyer, Michael Kennedy; and a consultant, Ralph Roberson met with officials of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the arm of the White House Office of Management and Budget that reviews all major federal regulations before they are issued in final form. An official of the Environmental Protection Agency participated by phone.
The meeting was disclosed on the OMB website, accompanied by an industry slideshow that described the environmental performance of the state-of-the-art Turk plant built in 2012 by American Electric Power in Arkansas. That kind of performance, the industry told the regulators, is what the EPA's rules should require—an emissions increase of about two-thirds over the agency's proposal, but cleaner than hundreds of existing power plants.
The administration's proposal for new power plants—one of two regulations cracking down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels to make electricity—is a central feature of the administration's climate policy.
The beleaguered coal industry is fighting the rules and its allies in Congress are trying to override them with legislation the administration has vowed to veto. The rules also face challenges in court.
The meetings at OIRA, first reported by the Washington Examiner, give a glimpse into the inside lobbying game as EPA puts its final touches on the rules, which were supposed to have been issued by now but may take until the end of the summer to finish. Environmental advocates have also been meeting with the regulators, insisting on the toughest possible standards.
The EPA's draft rules would effectively ban new coal-fired power plants unless they are equipped with new technology, which has yet to prove itself viable, that captures emissions so they can be buried in the ground. That technology is known as CCS, for carbon capture and sequestration.
The rules on new power plants would be followed by regulations aimed at existing power plants. Those would offer states a menu of options intended to cut overall emissions deeply over the next few decades, by relying on cleaner coal plants in the existing fleet, switching to natural gas, adopting renewables and emphasizing efficient use of electricity.
Together, the regulations are expected to significantly reduce consumption of coal in the United States, and to help the nation meet the administration's pledge to the United Nations to steadily decrease U.S. emissions as the world moves toward carbon-free energy. That's the central goal of treaty talks that culminate in Paris late this year.
The industry's goal, in contrast, is to cement a place for coal on an electric grid where cleaner, cheaper natural gas and carbon-free renewables like wind and solar are making dramatic inroads.
Ever since the EPA announced its proposal nearly two years ago to shift the industry toward carbon capture, the industry has insisted that CCS is not a demonstrated fix—and that it would be illegal for the agency to base its performance standard on a pig in a poke.
Instead, Roberson said in an interview, the industry told the regulators that they should base the standard on something similar to the "ultra-supercritical" technology used at the Turk plant, which achieves great efficiency by burning coal at extraordinarily high temperature and pressure.
Even though there is only one such plant in the country, he said, "it is real, it is generating electricity, it is selling power to consumers."
EPA's proposal, formally published in January, 2014, had explicitly rejected the Turk approach when it issued its draft rule, saying it would not do enough to clean up future power plants, which would then continue to emit too much pollution for decades.
"For the most part, new sources are already designed to achieve at least that emission limitation," the agency wrote. Carbon capture "would provide for significantly greater emissions reductions."
The EPA's proposed standard for coal plants aims to produce no more than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity. The Turk plant has averaged 1,861 in the past year and a half.
At the meeting, Roberson said, the EPA participant gave "no reaction" to the industry's recommendations, but the OIRA team "engaged a little." The White House regulatory office, over the years, has often played a moderating role in influencing final agency regulations.
As the review process has dragged on, rumors have swirled that the EPA would back off its strict, CCS-based standard. But it seems more likely the agency would soften the adoption requirements for CCS rather than shifting gears to an off-the-shelf technology.
Some have suggested that the EPA split the baby in half, setting the Turk approach as an interim standard, with a tougher CCS approach to follow.
The industry and its allies in Congress say the Clean Air Act makes it illegal to base a standard on technology that only exists in government-financed pilot plants—if indeed they can be brought on line successfully. (The Energy Department recently backed away from one such project.)
Roberson said he urged the agency to take the industry's approach to avoid litigation based on that reading of the law.
The agency has said that carbon capture is in use in other industries and that carbon dioxide is already injected underground to enhance oil recovery from old, depleted wells. The Clean Air Act, it says, has always spurred new anti-pollution technology, and this rule should do the same.
If a court were to reject the rule on new power plants, that could in turn delay the rule on existing plants, which is much more important to both the administration and the industry, because at today's prices for natural gas, there is little prospect of any new coal-fired plants being built anyway.
"I told them, if I was representing you, I would say make your rule defensible in court," Roberson said.