WASHINGTON - In a march toward the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., a coalition of environment groups and citizen activists rallied for new safeguards on power plants.

“We have to limit the causes of climate change," said marcher Molly Rauch, "and carbon pollution from power plants is one of the main causes of this problem.”  

Inside a packed hearing room, Rauch, who works on air quality issues for Moms Clean Air Force, a national nonprofit, sat at a desk facing EPA officials while holding up a picture of her children.

“This is why I’m here today, and I’m sure you have children who you love in your life," Rauch said. "If we continue to allow carbon pollution to be spewed into the air unchecked, we will be leaving our children with an uncertain, unhealthy and unsafe future.”  

Listening tour

The hearing wrapped up the EPA's nationwide tour to solicit comments as the agency develops rules to impose stricter clean air standards on coal-fired power plants.

Brian Patton, president of the James River Coal Co
Brian Patton, president of the James River Coal Company, testifies alongside U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Both represent coal interests in Kentucky. (A. Greenbaum/VOA)

America’s 1,000 coal-fired power plants supply 40 percent of the nation’s electricity and account for one-third of the polluting emissions, which the Obama Climate Action Plan has promised to curtail.

The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, came to  support his home state, which is a big coal producer.  

“By now, it is clear that this administration and your agency have declared a war on coal," McConnell said. "For Kentucky, this means a war on jobs and on our state's economy.”

Human hardship

Brian Patton, who comes from a long line of Kentucky coal miners and today is president of James River Coal, told EPA officials that his company has laid off 725 workers over the past six months. He fears new rules could bring even greater hardship to an already economically depressed area.   

“Understand these are communities of just 1,000, 2,000 people, 3,000 people and when you have that type of an economic impact due to regulations, many of which are regulations that come from Washington, D.C., that have very little understanding of what the outcome is for the local folks," Patton said, "for folks that get up and go to work every day and what that impact will be for their families in the future, and that’s wrong.”

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Scott Segal, who directs the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry trade group, warned restrictive measures would force plants to close, spur job loss, and cut what is now reliable and affordable energy for millions of people.

“The downside consequences of reduced electric reliability or even increased rates in the United States, have a real human face," Segal said. "I’m not just talking about folks who mine coal and communities that mine coal or that produce natural gas. I’m talking about individuals living in big cities that can’t heat their home in the winter or that can’t cool their home off sufficiently in the summer. These have real human health impacts.”

Segal added that it would make more sense for public health and the planet for the EPA to enforce energy efficiency and pollution controls already on the books.

“If we impose a unilateral rule, the ironic impact may be to actually increase the carbon burden of this globe by shifting the manufacturing of goods to places that are frankly less energy efficient than the United States,” Segal said.  

Regulating carbon

David Doniger, a climate policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s largest environmental groups, countered that it is the EPA’s job to regulate carbon as a pollutant and to formulate new standards that would shift the United States to a cleaner energy economy. 

A coalition of environmental groups rally at US En
A coalition of environmental groups rally at US Environmental Protection Agency headquarters for stricter rules on limiting carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. (A. Greenbaum/VOA)

“No one is proposing standards that would knock out all those power plants," Doniger said. "We’re talking about a shift from the dirtier ones to the cleaner ones, and from all those fossil fuel-powered ones towards renewable and even nuclear sources of energy.”

Doniger said such a systems-based approach - running the cleaner plants more and the dirtier ones less - could reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020. Simply put, he says, more efficient plants cost less to run.  

“It’s a better deal for the customers of the power companies," he said. "It’s a better deal for us as citizens, and the ones who might lose are the ones who are invested in some of the oldest and dirtiest plants."

Doniger said protecting the oldest and dirtiest plants is not the EPA’s mandate - protecting clean air is.      

“That’s the only way that we can continue to have the way of life we want without running into the wall on climate change impacts, which in turn will come back and destroy the quality of life we have,” Doniger said.

The EPA is now considering comments from the nationwide hearings and will issue proposed standards in June. The stricter rules will help the Obama Administration meet its pledge to reduce carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 17 percent by the end of the decade.