As India seeks to increase coal output, US cracks down on polluting fuel

Even as India gets near-desperate to increase the production and availability of coal, the Barak Obama administration in the US on Saturday took a drastic step to curb the use of this highly polluting and increasingly scarce fossil fuel by mandating a 30 per cent cut in carbon emissions at coal-burning power plants by 2030.

Opponents of the controversial regulation say it will cost nearly a quarter of a million jobs a year, and force power plants across the country to close. Some lawmakers already are trying to block one of the most sweeping efforts to tackle global warming by any US administration.

Coal-dependent power companies like American Electric Power Co and Duke Energy Corp face billions of dollars in added costs, while nuclear and other alternative power companies stand to gain. The regulations will be felt from the coal mines of West Virginia to natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale as the U.S. moves toward cleaner fuel sources.

The 645-page plan, expected to be finalised next year, is the centrepiece of President Obama's climate change agenda, and a step that the administration hopes will get other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year.

"We have a moral obligation to act," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, in announcing the plan Monday morning.

While the proposed regulation drew praise from environmental groups, the coal industry and coal-state lawmakers were immediately wary; Congressional representatives from Virginia and West Virginia immediately said they would introduce legislation to block the plan.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said he was "certain that it will be very bad news for states like Kentucky who mine and use coal to create electricity", with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell virtually echoing his views.

The draft regulation sidesteps Congress, where Obama's Democratic allies have failed to pass a so-called "cap-and-trade" plan to limit such emissions.

Under the plan, carbon emissions would be reduced 30 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. The proposal sets off a complex regulatory process in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customised targets set by the EPA.

States could have until 2017 to submit a plan to cut power plant pollution, and 2018 if they join with other states to tackle the problem, according to the EPA's proposal.

EPA data shows that the nation's power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 per cent since 2005. But with coal-fired power plants already beleaguered by cheap natural gas prices and other environmental regulations, experts said reaching the targets won't be easy. The EPA is expected to offer a range of options to states to meet targets that will be based on where they get their electricity and how much carbon dioxide they emit in the process.

While some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, overall the reduction will be 30 per cent nationwide.

The options include making power plants more efficient, reducing the frequency at which coal-fired power plants supply power to the grid, and investing in more renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. They also can set up pollution-trading markets as some states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions.

If a state refuses to create a plan, the EPA can make its own.

The Obama administration claimed the changes would produce jobs, cut electricity bills and save thousands of lives thanks to cleaner air. But the US Chamber of Commerce argues that the rule will kill jobs and close power plants across the country.

On Saturday, Obama tried to bolster public support for the new rule by arguing that carbon-dioxide emissions are a national health crisis -- beyond hurting the economy and causing global warming.

''We don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children,'' Obama said in his weekly address. ''As president and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing.''

Many anticipate the rule change will increase electricity prices, considering the United States relies on coal for 40 per cent of its electricity.

Obama is being forced to use the 1970s-era old Clean Air Act, after failing during his first term to get Congress to pass a law. The law has long been used to regulate pollutants like soot, mercury and lead, but has only recently been applied to greenhouse gases.

"There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and internet address. "We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It's not smart, it's not safe, and it doesn't make sense."

The rule also will prescribe technological fixes or equipment to be placed on existing plants and require new ones to capture some of their carbon dioxide and bury it underground.

In this context, environmentally conscious Indians may make a small bow to retired Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who did try to focus on alternative and renewable sources of energy. One can but hope that the Narendra Modi administration puts greater focus on these well-intentioned but disjointed plans.