WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers from states reliant on coal production and coal-powered energy challenged a top administration official Thursday, questioning the legality and effects of new standards to reduce carbon pollution through the nation’s power plants.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce met to hear testimony from Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe on the new Obama administration rule earlier this month, requiring states to reduce carbon emissions by a level determined by the EPA.
“Coal faces a devastating one-two punch from the EPA,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who chairs the subcommittee on energy and power, referring to both to new standards on existing plants and pressure on states to curb carbon emissions. “With this new proposed rule, the agency can begin shuttering existing coal facilities.”
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said the emissions standards set by the EPA would drive out coal mining jobs as states looked for less carbon-intensive ways of producing energy.
“Those of us in coal regions of this country are under attack and we have to deal with it,” Shimkus said.
Coal made up the largest share of U.S. electricity production in 2013, generating 39 percent of the nation’s electricity at close to 560 power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Kentucky and West Virginia had the highest reliance on coal energy, at more than 90 percent of both states’ production.
Under the new rules, states must submit a plan of implementation to the EPA for how they will meet the standards, which aim to reduce nationwide carbon emissions by 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.
The EPA estimates that such reductions will result in the avoidance of up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 fewer asthma attacks in children.
House Republicans questioned the administration’s authority to enact the standards, which the EPA said comes from the Clean Air Act of 1970, giving the agency the power to regulate emissions of air pollutants. However, Republicans argued that the standards are so strict _ possibly forcing coal-reliant states to close plants _ that they amount to a federal intrusion into state electricity policy.
“Where do you see, specifically, the clear and specific line of jurisdiction over intra-state electricity?” asked Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee.
McCabe rejected the idea that states would be forced to phase out coal energy, noting EPA estimates that coal is still expected to generate a third of the nation’s electricity by 2030.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., accused Republicans of using “scare tactics,” in their argument that the standards would raise energy costs and drive out business to other countries, such as India and China.
“Ford has almost a couple billion dollars invested in my district at their two plants,” he said referring to the car and truck maker. “They can’t just pick up and leave if energy goes up.”
McCabe said the EPA estimated the average energy bill would go down 8 percent by 2030 as the standards are enacted. However, that decrease is attributed to a reduction of consumption as families and businesses incorporate conservation measures. The actual cost of electricity is expected to increase by 2030.
Republicans on the committee continued to voice their concerns on the reality of climate change, with Democrats arguing that any increased costs from the regulations would offset the growing costs from droughts and natural disasters.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, lampooned the science behind climate change, calling people “mobile polluters” due the production of carbon dioxide through breathing.
“Climate change is real, and it is negatively impacting the lives and livelihood of the American people,” countered Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat.