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Does Mississippi’s icy reception signal a battle over carbon emissions cuts?

If the response from top Mississippi politicians to President Barack Obama’s central plan to combat global warming is emblematic, Republican-run states could wage a fierce fight against the administration’s proposed rule to slash carbon emissions from existing power plants by 2030.

The state’s Republican senators have lambasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal, which would require states to plan and enforce a 30 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, most of which come from coal-fired power plants.

Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker contend that the rule would saddle Mississippi, one of the nation’s poorest states, with a crippling economic hit and that the EPA overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. Both senators are among the 31 Republican co-sponsors of a Senate resolution calling on the EPA to withdraw the proposal.

Cochran supports “sound policies that would both reduce the risk of human-induced climate change and prepare our country for potential changes in climate, whether human-induced or not,” but not those that would hurt families or businesses, said his spokesman, Chris Gallegos.

Wicker not only has contended that the proposed rule “could be disastrous for our economy, particularly in Mississippi,” but also accuses Obama of launching a “war on coal.” He is more skeptical of claims about global warming, saying that “there has been no rise in global average temperatures over the past 17 years.”

EPA cites a scientific consensus that carbon emissions are a major contributor to rising planetary temperatures since 1901, with seven of the 10 warmest years on record occurring since 1998. Power plants account for one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, the agency says.

The sheer scale of its proposal has led to widespread hand wringing. Last week, days after Cochran, Wicker and 51 other senators sent a letter appealing for more time for stakeholders to comment on the proposal, EPA extended the deadline by 45 days, to Dec. 1.

“We’re really looking for feedback from states, if they have suggestions as to how they could improve the rule,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said. “We leave it up to states to come up with their own ideas as to how they can best meet the goals that were set for them.”

“Right now, we’re really thinking that we’re going to be able to work with states,” she said.

Mississippi power companies would face huge obstacles in complying, said Patrick Sullivan, president of the Mississippi Energy Institute, which gets some of its funding from the state’s electric utilities. He estimates that Mississippi electric ratepayers would be stuck with $14 billion in added costs, starting in 2018.

Sullivan and other power industry officials contend that the agency made unfounded assumptions in projecting, for example, the degree to which technology advances will improve power plant efficiency so that the amount of coal and natural gas burned to produce a megawatt hour of electricity will plummet.

But Glen Hooks, who led the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign for the south region, said that electric utilities always respond to clean air regulations by protesting that “the sky is falling and everybody’s gonna lose their job.”

“It never happens,” Hooks said. “The fossil fuels industry is making a lot of money under the current system, and they don’t have any incentive to change. If we have leaders who have the political will to generate power cleanly in ways that create thousands of jobs, then the game is about to change.”

The agency proposed emission reduction “goals” for each state’s existing power plants. If the rule is finalized along the same lines, each state government would be responsible for shaping strategies for meeting its goal.

Mississippi was assigned a goal of reducing in carbon dioxide emissions from 1,130 pounds per megawatt hour of electricity in 2012 to 692 tons per megawatt hour in 2030, a 39 percent drop. According to the administration’s third annual climate assessment, rising temperatures likely will reduce Mississippi’s agricultural production, and a six-inch sea level rise and increased violent weather could cause billions of dollars in damage along the Gulf Coast in coming years.

But Robbie Wilbur, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality under Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, responded to an inquiry about the proposed rule by pointing to the “vocal” objections from Cochran and Wicker.

Wilbur said that agency officials are “taking advantage of the extended comment period to more thoroughly analyze and evaluate the rule,” declining further comment.

The Gulfport-based Mississippi Power Co., which serves 23 counties in southeastern Mississippi and its Atlanta-based parent, the Southern Co., say they are drafting formal comments. Southern spokesman Tim Leljedal said, however, that the regional utility considers EPA’s proposed guidelines to be “unworkable.”

Mississippi Power operates two coal-fired plants along the gulf: Plant Watson, which Sullivan said is due to shift from a coal-and-gas mix to natural gas next year, while Plant Daniel is a newer facility that uses both fuels. The Entergy Corp. operates plants on the western side of the state.

Scott Segal, who heads the Washington-based Electric Reliability Coordinating Council representing Southern and other major utilities, said that complying with the rule will be especially difficult because “there aren’t that many new plants being built,” and coal-fired plants still provide 35 percent of the nation’s electricity.

While EPA estimates that the rule will have at least $55 billion in health and environmental benefits, Segal says his group estimates it will cost about $57 billion.

He called it “almost breathtaking” how EPA came to project that power plants could make a 6 percent improvement in the amount of heat they can use from coal and natural gas, noting that such advances already would be made if anyone knew how.

If EPA’s assumptions about improved energy efficiency and a bigger role for wind, solar and other renewable energy plants prove to be wrong, he said, states would be forced to require “truly, truly frightening” levels of energy conservation measures.

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