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Debate sharpens over climate change

First-ever rules call for cutting power plant emissions by 30%.

First-ever federal rules proposing limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants were hailed by environmentalists and Obama Administration officials Monday even as opponents derided the effort as harmful to the economy and costly to consumers.

“It’s important that we act now and we take that first step to curbing greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change,” said Trish Demeter, who heads energy and clean air programs for the Ohio Environmental Council. “We believe that we have an obligation to protect our children and future generations from the impacts of climate change.”

But the rules, which allow states to come up with plans to meet the emission targets, were quickly condemned by many in heavy coal-producing states like Ohio, who fear that the emission requirements will put plants out of business and employees out of work.

“I think they’ll have an extraordinarily negative effect on our economy, both in terms of less investment and fewer jobs,” said Linda Woggon, executive vice president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

“Like everyone else we certainly want to see clean air,” she said. “(But) this just goes so far it doesn’t come anywhere close to balancing the need for a strong economy with the need for a clean environment.”

The standards will be more difficult for some states, said Melissa A. McHenry, spokeswoman for Columbus-based American Electric Power, which has the nation’s largest fleet of coal-powered plants.

“Climate change is a global issue, and some states should not bear a disproportionate share of the cost of U.S. action to cut emissions,” she said.

Derek A. Porter, Dayton Power & Light president and chief executive, said the rules could lead to more coal plant retirements.

“Further EPA mandates are making it difficult for the remaining generating plants to operate efficiently to meet increasing electricity demand,” Porter said. “Without a balanced and reasonable approach to regulation, the electrical grid may be at risk for unnecessary stress and may not be ready to meet future peak demand days.”

But advocates say the rules will result in extraordinary health benefits and stem the growing impact of climate change in Ohio and across the country. A fact sheet put out by the administration says the public health and climate benefits of a drastic cut in emissions from power plants will prevent 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths, 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, 2,700 to 2,800 hospital admissions and 470,000 to 490,000 missed school and work days.

All told, the Obama administration says, public health and climate benefits from the so-called Clean Power Plan are worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion per year by 2030.

Some aren’t convinced.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., called Obama’s plan “nuts” in a news release issued after U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy on Monday announced the proposed rules.

Obama is “condemning (Americans) to higher bills and lower incomes long after he leaves office,” Boehner said.

Chris Abbruzzese, the spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, declined to address any potential environmental gain from reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In a written statement, Ohio EPA Director Craig W. Butler said only that the impact of the rules are being assessed.

“We are, of course, concerned with anything that could hurt Ohio’s economy at a time when we are just beginning to get back on track,” Butler said.

The proposed rules set a 2030 deadline for states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent nationwide compared to 2005 emissions. The percentage varies by state and each must present a plan to the feds explaining how power plants would meet the requirements. Plans could include energy efficiency and conservation programs, renewable energy standards, reducing reliance on coal by using cleaner-burning natural gas, retiring coal plants, expanding nuclear energy, deploying market-based trading program or other measures.

Nationally, emission totals have reduced considerably since 2005, which will make the targets easier to meet than if Obama used a more recent bench year.

“Proposals to reduce climate change must give states the flexibility to increase energy efficiency, improve our air quality and invest in clean energy technology at our power plants, homes and businesses,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

During the year-long comment period before final rules are issued, Brown said he will work with industry and environmentalists to “ensure the final rule improves air quality while promoting continued economic growth.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called the Obama plan “complex and costly.”

“Americans support a cleaner environment, but time and time again they have rejected politics that require handcuffing our economy in exchange for vague environmental benefits,” Portman said.

The Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature is considering a law attempting to limit the impact of emissions rules and last month the legislature rolled back energy efficiency and renewable energy mandates.

Ohio is hugely dependent on coal — with nearly 70 percent of its energy coming from it and 16 percent from natural gas, another fossil fuel. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which most scientists say causes climate change leading to polar melting, rising sea levels and extreme weather.

In 2012 Ohio power plants emitted 94 million metric tons of carbon pollution — the equivalent of the annual pollution from more than 19.5 million cars, according to a White House news release.

Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production in Ohio have declined about 11 percent since 2005, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. U.S. EPA data shows that by 2030 Ohio would need to reduce those emissions by 28 percent compared to actual 2012 emissions in order to meet the proposed EPA rules.

The new rules would also cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent, according to the U.S. EPA. It would reduce premature deaths, asthma attacks and other health problems, while reducing electricity bills through energy efficiency and reduction in demand, according to the EPA.

“This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps,” McCarthy said. “This is about protecting our health and protecting our homes.”

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