Topeka The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited Clean Power Plan on Sunday, setting the stage for what could be a pitched battle in Kansas over the federal government's authority to impose such regulations, and possibly over the entire science of climate change.
The new rules say that by 2030, the nation's fossil-burning power plants, such as the coal-fired Lawrence Energy Center, must reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent from their 2005 levels, a more ambitious goal than originally proposed. It also requires each state to adopt its own plan for achieving that goal.
"We applaud the EPA's moving forward with these rules," said Rabbi Moti Rieber, director of Kansas Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based group that lobbies the Kansas Legislature on environmental policy. "People of faith from every tradition know that climate change isn't solely a scientific issue, but a moral one."
The White House announced the new rules Sunday, along with state-specific information about the benefits that the Obama administration says will result from the new rules.
In 2013, the White House said, Kansas power plants emitted 33 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to the yearly pollution from nearly 7 million automobiles.
In addition to cutting carbon emissions, the administration said, the new guidelines will also cut other forms of pollution such as soot and smog, which it says will produce significant health benefits.
But utility companies are worried that the new standards, which have been in the works for more than a year, could force them to retire old coal-fired power plants before they have time to put new, cleaner generating facilities in place, something they say could threaten the reliability of the entire power grid.
"The rule will impact rates and could impact reliability, but it’s too soon to say how much," said Gina Penzig, spokeswoman for Topeka-based Westar Energy. "We work every day to improve reliability while keeping costs as low as we can."
Penzig noted that Westar has already reduced its carbon emissions by 15 percent from 2005 levels. But Westar, along with Kansas City Power and Light, together recently invested $600 million upgrading the coal-fired La Cygne power plant in Linn County to meet other EPA regulations, money they are now seeking to recover through a rate increase.
Those utilities have argued that they should be allowed to recoup those kinds of costs at La Cygne and elsewhere before they are forced to retire those plants due to new regulations.
And business groups also worry that the rules will drive up the cost of electricity, which could have a significant impact on the manufacturing industry.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected proposals to limit emissions that fail to take into account the cost of compliance," Kansas Chamber president Mike O'Neal said Monday. "This proposal violates that rule by once again failing to account for the exorbitant and prohibitive cost of compliance."
O'Neal was referring to a decision in June when the court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down EPA limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, saying the agency must take costs into consideration when making such rules. The state of Michigan filed the challenge, and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, joined in that challenge.
"What we need are policies that encourage our manufacturers, not policies that are calculated to punish and penalize," O'Neal said. "We support the viability of our economy, not some notion of what the current president envisions his 'legacy' to be."
Schmidt's office said Monday that it is likely he will join in a challenge of the Clean Power Plan.
"We will be reviewing the plan carefully," his spokeswoman, Jennifer Rapp, said. "However, it appears from the EPA’s own summary that the Obama Administration has failed to accommodate the comments that were offered by the attorney general, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Corporation Commission, and 4.3 million others regarding the EPA’s massive restructuring of state economies through the regulation of the generation and dispatch of energy to consumers and businesses. Legal action is a likely outcome."
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback also criticized the new rules.
“The EPA failed to adequately consider the negative impact this overreaching regulation has on Kansas rate payers, resulting in higher electricity rates and greater uncertainty in grid reliability," Brownback said in a statement released late Monday. "The final rule released today is twice as bad for Kansas as the proposed rule released last summer and requires us to review not only the rule itself but reconsider the state's overall approach to the Clean Power Plan."
Kansas has already cut carbon emissions from power plants by 11 percent since 2008, according to the White House. That is largely due to a state law, enacted in 2009, known as a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, which required electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
Utilities in Kansas actually surpassed that goal last year when wind energy produced 21.7 percent of the state's energy. But Kansas lawmakers repealed the RPS law this year, replacing it with a voluntary standard.
They also passed a law setting up procedures that could make it difficult for Kansas to implement the Clean Power Plan.
The law authorizes the Department of Health and Environment to develop a state plan, in conjunction with the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities in Kansas.
But any plan they develop also must be approved by a special legislative committee that is headed by the chairmen of the House and Senate utilities committees.
Those two chairmen, Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita and Sen. Robert Olson of Olathe, have both stated publicly that they do not believe carbon emissions in the atmosphere are a cause of global climate change.