CERAWeek: Transition away from coal power is “inevitable,” EPA boss says

By Matthew Tresaugue, Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The lights will stay on while electric utilities make the “inevitable” transition from coal-fired power plants, the nation’s leading source of climate-altering pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief said Thursday.

“Let me be clear: There is no scenario, standard or compliance strategy I will accept where reliability comes into question,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told industry executives at the IHS CERAWeek conference. “Period.”

McCarthy’s pledge comes amid anxiety over the Obama administration’s push to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector while rapidly expanding the use of cleaner-burning natural gas, wind and solar.

Several companies and states, including Texas, say the proposed regulation will threaten electricity reliability by forcing coal plants to retire prematurely.

But McCarthy said the forthcoming rule “does not seek to swim against the current. It’s wind in our sails.” She said compliance should not be looked at as a liability or cost, noting that many companies have invested billions of dollars to use energy more efficiently while bringing online increasingly more gigawatts of climate-friendly electricity.

“This is some serious investment,” McCarthy said. “Clearly, you’re spending that money increasingly on strategies that reduce carbon, like efficiency or solar, or just on making sure your operations are as up-to-date and high-performing as possible, because the economics make sense.”

The federal plan, expected to be finalized this summer, calls for electric utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. While some companies say the targets are achievable, others say they are not achievable in states that rely heavily on coal.

“Why are we working so hard to push ourselves off the cliff?” said Greg Boyce, chairman and CEO of St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company by output.

McCarthy, however, said coal would remain one of the leading sources of U.S. electricity, providing about 30 percent of projected capacity in 2030. But the new rule would encourage states and utilities to modernize plants, improve efficiency and generate more power from sources cleaner than coal, such as natural gas and wind, she said.

Industry, she said, “never fails to meet the standards we set. That’s because they are very innovative.”