Coal power plants may have to limit emissions

— -- About 100 proposed coal-fired power plants in the USA may be required to limit their greenhouse gas emissions after the Environmental Protection Agency was blocked Thursday from issuing a permit for a proposed Utah plant without addressing the issue of global warming.

The EPA's appeals board said the agency didn't adequately justify its decision last year not to require controls for carbon dioxide emissions when it tentatively issued a permit for Deseret Power Electric Cooperative's planned coal plant near Vernal, Utah.

The panel sent the case back to the EPA's regional office to determine whether CO{-2} constraints are required. It said it recognizes "this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this" permit.

The ruling has a far-reaching impact on dozens of coal-fired power plants awaiting permits. At the very least, it will delay by several months issuance of those permits, says Justin Hutt, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents utilities.

And President-elect Barack Obama, who has pushed for aggressive limits on global warming, is likely to use the ruling as a springboard to mandate tougher controls on coal plants, says Sierra Club director Bruce Nilles.

Coal plants are the single biggest culprit in global warming, accounting for about a third of CO{-2} emissions, the chief greenhouse gas.

Currently, there are no federal limits on CO{-2} emissions by any industry. But last year the Supreme Court ruled that CO{-2} is a pollutant, paving the way for the EPA to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions — something the Bush administration hasn't done.

But the Sierra Club challenged the Utah permit, citing the high court's ruling and a law that says the best available technology must be used to limit any pollutant "subject to regulation." The environmental group argued that CO{-2} is regulated, noting emissions from power plants must be monitored and reported.

The EPA disagreed, saying CO{-2} is not regulated because emissions are not constrained in any way. The appeals board rejected that narrow reading, as well as the agency's claim that it has no discretion to require CO{-2} controls. But it stopped short of ordering the EPA to impose them.

In practice, however, the panel's ruling clears the way for the Obama administration to require cleaner technologies for coal plants.

For example, an Obama EPA could require utilities to build more efficient plants that emit less CO{-2} or blend in cleaner-burning biomass with coal.

"Now, on Day 1 (of an Obama administration) they can say every (plant) needs to have a CO{-2} limit," Nilles says.

Longer-term, Congress is expected to impose caps on CO{-2} emissions, requiring companies to buy allowances for each ton of carbon they emit. Companies that exceed their limits could buy allowances from those that fall below them.