PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to reduce the gases blamed for global warming from the nation's power plants gives many coal-dependent states more lenient restrictions and won't necessarily be the primary reason coal-fired power plants will be retired.
If Kentucky, for example, meets the new limits that the Obama administration proposed Monday, it would be allowed to release more heat-trapping carbon dioxide per unit of power in 2030 than plants in 34 states do now.
That's because the Environmental Protection Agency would only require Kentucky, which relies on coal for about 90 percent of its electricity needs, to improve its carbon dioxide emissions rate by 18 percent over the next 15 years. By 2030, Kentucky would be second only to North Dakota for having the most carbon-intensive power plants in the country.
Environmentalists had hoped the proposal would shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Republican critics painted it as a war on coal, with a major economic impact on local economies.
Neither side got exactly what they wanted.
Instead, the EPA's complex formula to calculate each state's reductions gives some coal-heavy states a more relaxed standard, based on what it deemed was realistic to achieve. The EPA says that even with the rules, coal will still provide about 30 percent of the nation's power in 2030. It supplies just under 40 percent now.
"We looked at where states are today, and we followed where they're going," said Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator. "Each state is different, so each goal and each path can be different."
For instance, Indiana's target, at 20 percent, presents a challenge in a state that sits atop a major vein of coal and where more than 80 percent of power is produced by coal. But the EPA gave Indiana credit for already taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, such as encouraging utilities to set renewable energy standards, and environmental activists say they believe the goal can be accomplished.
"I think that meeting EPA's goals is doable for Indiana, and it's a challenge we really have to take on," said Jodi Perras, Indiana's representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
Doug Gotham of the State Utility Forecasting Group, a state-funded, Purdue University research group, said moves that utilities are already making, like replacing aging coal-fired plants with ones that burn cleaner natural gas, will help Indiana move in the right direction to meet the 2030 goals.
But Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and a state manufacturers' group fear the tougher standards will chill the state's business climate. Pence, a Republican, vowed to oppose the regulations, saying in a statement that they would cost the state jobs and business growth and result in higher electricity rates.
The defensive posture of coal states comes as the resource struggles to compete with plentiful natural gas, the primary driver for coal's diminishing share of the U.S. electricity market — and environmental regulations are not helping. Besides the carbon rule proposed Monday, the EPA also proposed that new plants capture a portion of their carbon pollution. The Obama administration has also cracked down for the first time on mercury and other toxic pollutants from the nation's coal-fired power plants. And more regulations are in the pipeline to control coal ash waste ponds and other releases from coal-fired power plants into the environment.
Together, it's hard to predict what all these rules and the natural gas boom will do to coal-fired power.
"Why keep chopping the legs out of your own economy to try to fight a world problem? You are going to destroy your country trying to set an example," Gary Whitt, a 29-year-old railroad worker said as he ate lunch at Giovanni's in downtown Prestonsburg, Kentucky. He said at least 50 of his co-workers have been laid off, and he's worried he could be next.
Here in Floyd County 20 years ago, more than 150 coal mines were active. Now there are fewer than five, according to R.D. "Doc" Marshall, the county judge-executive. Total coal production in the state has fallen nearly 40 percent since 2000.
Another coal-dependent state, West Virginia, would need to drop its emissions by 19.8 percent, letting the state produce the fifth highest rate nationally in 2030.
Two companies running major West Virginia power plants, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, said it's too early to determine impacts.
Politicians and industry groups, meanwhile, painted a grim picture.
Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said no coal plants in the state would currently meet the 2030 mark. His environmental secretary said the technology isn't there is for coal plants to make those strides either. The EPA has given states a range of options from boosting efficiency to investing in more renewable energy to help states get there.
But not everyone thinks cleaning up coal is a bad thing, even in coal country. More than 180 miles away in Louisville, Kentucky's most populous city, Kathy Little can see the smokestacks of an aging coal-burning power plant from her front porch.
Little, who lost her job last year at a company that sells heavy equipment to coal mines, said she was encouraged by the new rules.
"What are they going to be left with if they don't curb carbon dioxide now?" she said. "If you care about your little ones then that's what you need to think about, and not so much the here and now."
Cappiello reported from Washington. Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, Charles D. Wilson in Indianapolis, and Jonathan Mattise in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.
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