SALT LAKE CITY — A new proposal from the Obama administration to cut carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants won cautious praise from some Utah officials Monday but was dismissed as "just pure fantasy" by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
Other members of Utah's congressional delegation joined Stewart in slamming the "Clean Power Plan" announced by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health, protect the environment and fight climate change.
But Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, Alan Matheson, and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, had a different reaction to the proposed requirement that carbon emissions be reduced 30 percent by 2030.
Matheson called the proposal a "positive step" and said while the six coal-fired power plants in the state have already been looking at ways to control emissions, new regulations "might push them a little bit."
The GOP governor's office is still going over the 600-page proposal, Matheson said.
"We're going to take a close look. Certainly we've had a goal for a long time of reducing emissions as we produce the power our economy and our society needs," he said. "So this goal isn't new."
Becker, a Democrat, said the Wasatch Front's air pollution issues are "a call to action" on climate change.
"Taking this responsible and necessary step will go a long way to starting effective societal solutions," the mayor said.
A report released last week by environmental advocates, energy companies and the Bank of America, ranked Utah sixth in the nation for carbon dioxide emissions produced by power plants.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy said the utility "is reviewing the proposed EPA ruling for existing power plants and will consider the implications" of the proposal.
One of the power company's three coal-fired plants, the Carbon Power Plant outside of Helper, is already scheduled to be shut down next year because it didn't make economic sense to invest in emission upgrades.
The other coal-fired plants operated by Rocky Mountain Power are in Castle Dale and Huntington.
Murphy said Rocky Mountain Power and other Western utilities under PacifiCorp now rely on coal-fired plants for 62 percent of the energy produced, but that number is projected to drop to 46 percent by 2024.
The Intermountain Power Project, a massive coal-fired plant in Delta in which 36 municipalities, rural electric cooperates and other entities participate, is already shifting to natural gas, Intermountain Power Agency spokesman John Ward said.
That's because the plant, which generates enough electricity to power more than 1.5 million homes, sells most of the energy it produces to Southern California, and California has banned the use of coal-fired power after 2027, Ward said.
The proposal could affect whether the plant's coal units continue to operate or are shut down permanently, he said, though market demand for the coal-produced power is a bigger factor in that decision.
The agency, Ward said, "takes very seriously their role as an economic engine in rural Utah."
Christopher Thomas, executive director of HEAL Utah, an environmental advocacy group, said the limits are long overdue and are "a huge win for our air quality here and also statewide," including the national parks located near the coal-fired plants.
Because the standards give states flexibility in how to meet the goal, Thomas said, "it's not entirely clear how Utah would choose to meet it.
"In some cases it could be shutting down a unit over time or it could be not using it as much," he said.
According to the White House, 31 million metric tons of carbon pollution were emitted from power plants in Utah in 2012, an amount equal to the yearly pollution from more than 6.5 million cars.
The administration touted its support for renewable energy projects nationwide, including 469 in Utah generating enough power for more than 68,000 homes, as well as a University of Utah initiative to reduce energy intensity 20 percent by 2020.
But Stewart, the former head of the House Subcommittee on the Environment, said the proposed requirement will necessitate billions of dollars in renovations and cost more than 400,000 jobs.
"What the EPA is calling a 'common sense plan' is just pure fantasy. It's just another example of more expensive, big-government regulations and less freedom for American business and American families," Stewart said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said because it's an election year, he is not surprised President Barack Obama is proposing "punitive new mandates that will ultimately curb domestic energy production" and raise energy costs.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the new mandates will "drive up the cost of electricity and other basic necessities and create instability and vulnerability in our electric grid, while having little or no global environmental benefit."
So did Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who also raised concerns the president was taking executive action "to implement this misguided and unpopular approach," which he also called "a radical policy."
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