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Beth Ulion/MEDILL Under the proposed EPA rule, coal-fired power plants such as this one on Chicago's South Side would have to use the best technology to cut global warming pollutant
Beth Ulion/MEDILL
Under the proposed EPA rule, coal-fired power plants such as this one on Chicago’s South Side would have to use the best technology to cut global warming pollutant

by Annie Snider
Oct 05, 2009

Large industrial greenhouse gas emitters – such as Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants – face new federal regulation under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to control global warming.

Wednesday’s EPA proposal adds greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane to the emissions the agency regulates. Significantly, according to environmental groups, the restrictions don’t just apply to new projects, but also to older facilities undergoing renovations.

The move came Wednesday, the same day Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and John Kerry (D-MA) introduced a Senate version of the climate change bill that narrowly passed the House this summer.

President Obama has stated his preference for acting on climate change through comprehensive legislation, but the new EPA proposal indicates his commitment to moving forward on emissions reductions, with or without Congress.

Illinois is home to some of the nation’s worst coal clunkers. If the Midwest overall were its own country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of global warming pollution, surpassed only by China, India, Russia and Japan, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Web site.

Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants have largely foregone upgrade in order to remain eligible for a Clean Air Act exemption for plants built before 1977. This August, the federal government and the State of Illinois filed a lawsuit against the plants’ operator, Midwest Generation, claiming that recent plant upgrades should subject the plants to tighter restrictions on air pollutants such as particulate matter.

Midwest Generation purchased the Chicago plants from ComEd and Midwest now sells the power back to the company for residential distribution.

“We depend a great deal on outrageously aging infrastructure that competes, in my opinion illegally, with new energy technology,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest Program Director for the National Resources Defense Council. His group filed an intention to sue Midwest Generation in July, in advance of the federal suit.

The proposal is focused only on larger facilities – those emitting 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year – such as power plants and refineries. EPA estimates that 400 of these facilities, both new and old, would have to prove they were using the best available clean technologies.

Last year, Chicago’s Fisk power plant emitted more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide. The Crawford plant emitted more 3 million tons.

Yesterday’s move was no surprise. It came two and a half years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled greenhouse gases could be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

In fact, many Chicago-area businesses support action on climate change.

In a head-turning move on Monday, John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Exelon, announced the company’s resignation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce due to of the organization’s opposition to climate legislation. As a major owner of nuclear power plants, including those in Chicago, Exelon stands to profit from a surcharge on carbon.

But, like many businesses, Exelon prefers legislation to regulation.

“Inaction on climate is not an option,” Rowe said, foreshadowing Wednesday’s announcement. “If Congress does not act, the EPA will, and the result will be more arbitrary, more expensive, and more uncertain for investors and the industry than a reasonable, market-based legislative solution.”

Even coal-vested companies such as Midwest Generation recognize the inevitability of greenhouse gas emissions restrictions.

“Our parent company has been preparing ourselves for a carbon-constrained world for a number of years now,” said Charley Parnell, a spokesman for Midwest Generation.

“We have been in D.C. in support of Waxman-Markey,” the House climate change bill, he said. “We feel that is the most appropriate way to promote reductions in climate change.

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