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Debate over coal technology burns at forum on EPA carbon regulations

Shaun McGrath, Region 8 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, talks about the impacts of climate change during a symposium on proposed EPA carbon regulations hosted by the North Dakota Public Service Commission on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. (Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service )

BISMARCK — Debate over whether technology is available for coal-fired power plants to meet the Obama administration’s proposed stricter limits on carbon emissions burned strong Wednesday during a symposium hosted by the North Dakota Public Service Commission in Bismarck.

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In opening comments directed at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, PSC Commissioner Randy Christmann said he’s concerned about regulations that refer to technology such as the Kemper County coal gasification demonstration project in Mississippi — which is designed to capture at least 65 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces — as proven technology. The plant hasn’t begun operations.

Christmann said he feels “there’s way too much at stake to rely on anything that’s unproven.”

“The Ford Pinto was going to revolutionize compact cars, and luckily we didn’t mandate that everybody have one,” he said.

Shaun McGrath, administrator for EPA Region 8, which includes North Dakota, said the agency concluded that while there is opportunity for more innovation, the carbon capture and storage technology that will make it possible to meet the new standards “really does exist.

“It’s available, it’s technically feasible and it’s being used today,” he said.

The EPA proposed new standards in September that would limit carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour. That’s less than half the current average of about 2,250 pounds per megawatt hour for coal-fired plants, including North Dakota’s seven plants.

McGrath said climate change driven by carbon pollution prompted the proposed standards, which have received more than 2.5 million comments. He said 33 percent of manmade greenhouse gases stem from the power sector, yet 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the coal industry compared to other power sources.

The public comment period closes March 10, and the EPA intends to issue its final rule “in a timely fashion” after considering the comments, he said.

Proposed standards for existing power plants are due out by June 1, with states’ plans to meet those standards due by June 2016.

“So it’s a very aggressive schedule,” McGrath said.

It’s too aggressive, according to utility company executives and a former top U.S. Department of Energy official who spoke at Wednesday’s symposium at the Capitol.

Mike Eggl, a senior vice president with Bismarck-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative, said the proposed EPA rule poses a threat to the co-op’s standard of providing cost-effective wholesale energy. He noted the co-op just spent $410 million last year to install scrubbers at one of its coal-fired plants.

“We just don’t believe that a policy that restricts the future use of coal to the point where you can’t have the opportunity to use it is a good national security policy,” he said.

Frank Morehouse, president and CEO of Montana-Dakota Utilities, said replacing MDU’s coal-fired resources with new natural-gas-fired generation would increase the current MDU residential rate by 45 percent when accounting for costs associated with having to retire coal plants early.

“The increased costs and compromised flexibility doesn’t make any sense to us,” he said.

Charles McConnell, who served as assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy for two years before joining Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative in 2013, said the type of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology needed to meet EPA’s proposed standards isn’t ready today and won’t be by 2016. He noted that the DOE’s research and development roadmap for the technology doesn’t end until 2020.

McConnell said North Dakota is blessed with attributes that make it an ideal place to deploy demonstration projects that use captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery, but he said the proposed EPA rules threaten investment.

“Whereas the EPA would argue this is being put in place to incentivize the deployment of (the technology) faster, what they’re really doing is ensuring that it will not get deployed and be fundamentally the end of the road for new coal, at least for now,” he said.

Wayde Schafer of the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club urged the EPA to adopt the stronger emission standards, calling North Dakota’s reliance on “dirty” lignite coal short-sighted.

Schafer said his concern about carbon capture and utilization is that the technology isn’t commercially viable and perfected yet, “and I don’t know if we have time to do that.

“We’ve got a small window of opportunity before the problems associated with climate disruption are really beyond the point of us fixing it,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.