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Minnesota Power, MPCA ready for new carbon regulations

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Clean Power Plan at the White House in Washington August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Obama administration on Monday announced strict new rules for carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants in a move praised by some environmentalists as the single largest step ever taken to thwart climate-changing greenhouse gasses.

In regulations surely to be challenged in court by coal-heavy states and utilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ordering coal and oil-fired power plants to cut carbon by 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

That's more than the 30 percent cut initially unveiled when the rule was proposed last year. They become the first ever U.S. carbon limits.

"Climate change is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore," Obama said in a video heralding the new rule, later adding in person that "this plan begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy — using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy."

Opponents said the plan, first unveiled in mid-2014 and now final, pending litigation, will lead to higher electric bills and lost jobs, especially in rural areas.

"The president once again demonstrated his lack of empathy for hard-working Americans across the country who first and foremost wish to secure a robust economic future. Instead of putting their priorities first, the president shamefully put his political legacy first," said Mike Duncan, CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

The plan calls for a state-by-state cap and reduction effort for carbon pollution created when fossil fuels are burned. State agencies and utilities would be able to develop their own plans on how to meet the federal carbon cut goal. And the feds establish a way for state to trade carbon credits.

The final plans give states until 2022 to comply, an extra two years compared to last year's initial proposal.

Because the regulation requires states to submit their plans to the EPA, it's not clear what will happen if Republican governors don't comply. The carbon rule allows the EPA to create and impose plans for states that refuse, but it is unclear how the federal government would force compliance. Some governors, including Wisconsin's Scott Walker, already have threatened to take legal action to stop the federal plan.

Both Minnesota regulators and utilities say the state already is poised to reach those cuts, thanks to state laws requiring utilities to move away from coal to cleaner sources such as natural gas, wind and solar energy.

"We think they've improved the plan. We think they give more credit to states that have already done a lot to reduce carbon emission, like Minnesota. And that's good," said David Thornton, assistant commissioner for air policy for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Thornton said an early MPCA analysis of the final rule shows Minnesota will need to cut carbon by a little less than the 42 percent originally expected under the proposed rule. He said the state must submit a preliminary plan to the feds in just 13 months — likely a mix of displacing coal with natural gas and renewable energy "and conservation, which is still the cheapest source of energy," he noted.

Duluth-based Minnesota Power says it's well on the way to meeting the federal goal. The utility, which was nearly 95 percent dependent on coal as recently as 2005, is moving with its Energy Forward plan to cut coal to 33 percent of generation by 2030, with another third from natural gas and a third from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro.

Julie Pierce, director of power supply for Minnesota Power, said early calculations show the Energy Forward effort will "get us into the ballpark, if not right on baseline" of meeting the federal carbon cuts. The company in recent years has moved to idle small coal plants, convert some coal to natural gas, increase wind generation in North Dakota and contract-buy large amounts of hydropower from Canada.

Coal-fired power plants emit about one-third of all carbon emissions in the U.S. and are the single largest source. Obama said Monday that the rule, when fully in effect, will have the same effect as taking 166 million cars off the road.

The vast majority of scientists who study the issue say it is human-caused greenhouse gases that are spurring unprecedented climate change, raising air, ocean and even Lake Superior temperatures, which threaten the environment and human communities. Without major reductions in emissions, experts say carbon levels in the atmosphere, as well as global temperatures, could increase to levels within a few decades from which the planet may not fully recover.

Environmentalists hailed the Obama administration's effort to act on a major issue that Congress has been unwilling or unable to reach consensus on, saying it will spur progress at December's United Nations climate-change conference.

"This really could be the single largest step taken by anyone to combat climate change so far," said J. Drake Hamilton, science and policy director Minnesota-based Fresh Energy, in advance of the final rule. "Especially heading into the discussions in December on a world stage."

In Duluth, a coalition of clean energy, environmental and social justice leaders praised the EPA effort as healthier, not just for the planet but for people. The EPA says the rule will reduce smoke that spurs 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma cases and 1,700 heart attacks each year.

"Children, seniors and low-income families in our Minnesota communities have been disproportionately affected over the years by carbon emissions from industry and coal-burning plants," said Rev. Dr. David A. Bard, pastor of Duluth's First United Methodist Church. "We must make sure people from all walks of life are protected as Minnesotans work together to cut this harmful pollution."

Others said it will help spur jobs in new, local industries instead of exporting energy payments to coal producing states.

"The clean energy sector has already grown more than 78 percent since 2000 and created more than 15,000 jobs for hard-working Minnesotans," said Bret Pence, a program specialist at Ecolibrium3, a Duluth-based energy conservation group. "If we maximize our clean energy potential, Minnesota could create more than 35,000 new jobs and over $2 billion in wages over the next 15 years."

While critics have said the rule will lead to higher utility prices, Obama on Monday said the change will eventually reduce the average homeowner's electric bill by about $85 per year.

Despite the Northland's often frigid winters, global temperatures were at or near all-time highs in 2014 and so far in 2015, according to NASA data. In addition to long-term higher temperatures, many experts say a warmer climate will lead to increased droughts, but also increased mega-storms that cause floods. Regional weather data already appear to be showing that more of our annual rainfall is coming in large storms rather than gentle rainfalls. Some scientists are concerned that some species of trees, fish and animals — such as spruce, lake trout and moose — already are being pushed north, out of Minnesota, as a result of the warmer climate.

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