U.S. EPA will unveil a proposal for the first-ever technology standards to rein in power plant emissions of carbon dioxide today.

As rumored, EPA will require that all new natural gas-fired plants emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, and coal plants no more than 1,100 pounds per megawatt-hour. Although a combined cycle natural gas plant could easily meet the standard, even the most efficient coal plant would have to cut about 40 percent of its CO2 emissions.

To do this, facilities would have to incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in their construction, a promising but relatively new method of capturing CO2 and either storing it underground or using the gas for industrial purposes.

"These new rules will limit carbon pollution from all future U.S. power plants. That's good news for people and the environment," said Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute. "While not yet used on a wide scale, CCS is technically feasible and could be further deployed under the right conditions."

The coal industry, and its backers in Congress, have said that if EPA deems CCS the best system of emissions reduction, it will force the industry to use a method that has not been proved on a commercial scale. This would halt any new construction of coal-fired facilities, they said.

"The announcement by the EPA is another back-door attempt by President Obama to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation's coal mines," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

The first version of the standards was announced in March 2012, and contained a single requirement of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. After receiving more than 2 million comments, EPA decided to repropose the rule with two separate standards for oil and natural gas. At 1,100 pounds per megawatt-hour, the new standard for coal is only slightly more relaxed that last year's proposal.

McCarthy, who oversaw the first version of the proposal as assistant administrator of air and radiation, was confirmed as head of the agency in July. Since then, she has repeated that action on greenhouse gas emissions need not come at the expense of the economy.

"CCS technology is feasible; it is available," she said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday. "Frankly, the challenge is that we need to provide certainty for how we construct a coal facility in the future that will allow investment in that technology."

McCarthy continued to say that pipelines are being built to accommodate for CO2 transport for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a process of pushing carbon dioxide in depleted oil wells to squeeze out any remaining petroleum.

"Selling captured CO2 for use in EOR provides a vital revenue stream for a capture project, helping offset high investment costs," wrote Patrick Falwell, a solutions fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, in a recent blog.

Very few coal-fired power plants are expected to be built in the future, due to the abundance and low price of natural gas. In addition, recent air quality rules will make building and operating a coal plant much more expensive than in the past.

Nevertheless, some utilities still prefer to keep coal to maintain a diversity of fuels in the electric grid.

"I think it's bad policy to put all of your eggs in one basket," said Bob Vickery with POWER4Georgians, a group of electric cooperatives behind the planned 850-megawatt coal-fired Plant Washington in Washington County, Ga. "Diversity makes business sense, period."

Questions remain on what the proposal will contain, like whether Southern Co.'s 524-megawatt Kemper integrated gasification combined cycle plant will be used as proof that CCS can be "reasonably demonstrated." The Kemper plant in Mississippi would capture about 65 percent of its emissions and use the carbon dioxide for EOR in nearby oil fields.

It is also unclear if facilities will be allowed to average their emissions rate over 30 years, as last year's NSPS proposal did. Under such a provision, facilities would be allowed to operate without any carbon controls for a number of years, so long as the average over 30 years equals 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

Climate change advocates have compared the development of CCS technology to the scrubbers that removed nitrogen oxides and sulfur from power plant emissions.

Environmentalists say that CCS is at a point of development similar to the point scrubbers were at in the 1990s, but backers of the coal industry say it's nowhere close.

"In the clean air debate, the technology was available; in the greenhouse gas debate, it's not available," said John Shimkus (R-Ill.) at Wednesday's hearing.

Republicans in Congress, including McConnell and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), have said they will introduce legislation that would limit EPA's authority to impose performance standards for greenhouse gas on power plants. Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have introduced amendments to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill that would block the rules (Greenwire, Sept. 18).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500