WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it would set standards for greenhouse gas emissions from the country's two biggest sources: coal-fired power plants and refineries.
Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said it would be possible to hold down costs, add jobs and reduce overall emissions even as the plants continue to burn fossil fuels. She said it wasn't possible to estimate yet how much emissions would be reduced.
Scientists globally are in strong agreement that that heat-trapping gases are accumulating in the atmosphere mainly as a result of fossil-fuel use and that sharp cuts in emissions will be needed in the next few decades.
The EPA's new regulations are likely to have only a modest impact on emissions despite worldwide consensus that dramatic cuts are needed to lower the risks of dangerous climate shifts. A plan to impose mandatory reductions on emissions died in Congress last summer.
The EPA rule would require standards only for new plants and those that make major modifications.
Under a provision of the Clear Air Act, existing plants - about 500 coal-fired power plants and 150 refineries - would continue to operate as usual until states impose their own regulations on the basis of EPA guidelines. McCarthy said state regulations aren't expected until 2015 or 2016.
The EPA already sets standards for other forms of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The standards generally are set as a rate - a certain amount of pollution per megawatt hour of electricity, for example. If a plant expanded and produced more power, it also would produce more pollution.
The EPA soon will begin talks with industry and environmental groups as it works to devise the actual standards. McCarthy said that the agency would take cost and technology availability into account. The agency will propose the power plant standards in July and issue the final decision in May 2012. It will propose the refinery standards next December and finalize them in November 2012.
"This is basically just business as usual," McCarthy said. "We'll establish standards based on good technology. . . . There will be reasonable standards set that can be achieved cost-effectively."
She also said there would be no tradeoffs that would lighten clean air standards in exchange for compliance with climate standards.
David Doniger, the policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA had taken a major new step that could make a significant dent in carbon pollution.
"This is not the be all and end all. It's not going to give us the surety of very deep reductions we need over the next decades. But it can get us started, and it's the tool we have under the law of the land as it is today," he said.
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA air administrator in the Bush administration who's a lobbyist for the electric power industry at Bracewell & Giuliani, said it remains to be seen how strict the EPA would be, and he predicts the new standards will get delayed past the 2012 elections.
"I think it's going to be a real problem for them," he said. "They're out trying to reassure everybody this is going to be reasonable and no big deal. If that's what they do then they're not going to be any reduction of emissions and they're going to make the environmental community upset."
Any meaningful restrictions on emissions would make energy costs rise, he said.
McCarthy said the EPA has used this type of air pollution control standard 75 times for various pollutants in the 40-year history of the Clean Air Act. She said the system is flexible and allows industries to adopt the most cost-effective technologies to meet the standards.
The EPA air chief said the agency decided to start with power plants and refineries because they produce large amounts of emissions, and there are cost-effective ways to reduce them.
The regulations would cover power plants that burn coal or oil. However, oil accounts for only a small fraction of fossil-fuel power production.
The EPA's schedule for the new standards is part of settlement agreements that resolve lawsuits filed by environmental groups. They sued the EPA under the previous administration for not setting limits on industrial carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"The EPA has a legal duty to respond to the very real dangers of global warming pollution by setting strong limits on carbon pollution from power plants and factories," said Tim Ballo, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represented environmental organizations in the suits.
Greenpeace also said the EPA should set strong standards.
"Greenpeace welcomes today's EPA announcement, but the administration needs to do a better job conveying the urgency of combating pollution from coal-fired power plants if protections are to withstand attacks by industry groups over the coming months and years," said Gabe Wisniewski, who directs the environmental group's campaign against coal, in a statement.
The Clean Air Act also requires air pollution permits for the construction of large new industrial plants. The EPA will require greenhouse gas permits for the first time for new plants beginning on Jan. 2. Industries will have to show that they're taking steps to control emissions to obtain the permits.