PITTSBURGH (AP) — The sweeping Obama administration plan to limit carbon dioxide pollution from electric power plants could have significant impacts on Pennsylvania's air quality as well as its industries, experts said Monday.
Gov. Tom Corbett was critical of the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, but one major utility said the reductions appear to be doable.
The plan, announced Monday, gives each state some flexibility in how it makes significant reductions in carbon emissions by 2030. About 40 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity comes from about 30 major coal-fired power plants, and the state is also the fourth-leading producer of coal in the nation.
The proposal could bring much cleaner air to Pennsylvania, but coal-fired power plants would be forced to spend far more money on reducing pollution.
One major energy company that operates in Pennsylvania was cautiously optimistic about the proposal.
"FirstEnergy believes it is in a strong position to meet the requirements in the proposed rule" through investments in emissions controls and plant retirements, said spokeswoman Stephanie Walton. She said FirstEnergy, which is based in Akron, Ohio, is still studying the plan, but had already expected to cut carbon emissions significantly next year.
But coal miners could suffer even if energy companies adapt. Pennsylvania employed about 9,000 coal miners in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and those jobs play a vital role in some rural communities.
"Thousands of direct coal industry jobs will be lost," Pennsylvania Coal Alliance CEO John Pippy said in statement.
"Anything that seeks to or has the effect of shutting down coal-fired power plants is an assault on Pennsylvania jobs, consumers, and those citizens who rely upon affordable, abundant domestic energy," Corbett added in a statement.
The Environmental Protection Agency proposal suggests that Pennsylvania cut 2012 carbon emissions by about a third by 2030. Some other states that use more coal would have to make even greater cuts. The proposal sets off a complex regulatory process in which each state will determine how to meet targets set by the EPA, then submit those plans for approval. Power companies could achieve reductions in several ways, from improving energy efficiency to encouraging lower-carbon sources of power, such as wind or natural gas.
"I'm delighted that the EPA rules have the flexibility built into them to include other low-pollution sources, and are not limited at the power plant fence," said Jay Apt, an electric power expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Apt said coal could still be a significant source of power in Pennsylvania if the industry embraces new technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Pippy, of the coal alliance, called for "a commonsense approach that reduces emissions within what science and technology allow."
Pennsylvania environmental groups welcomed the plan.
"This will put us on the path of meeting the science-based reductions necessary" to avoid even more extreme global warming impacts, said Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment.
"This is a great day for the environment," said Christina Simeone, director of the PennFuture Energy Center. But Simeone noted that a surge of cheaper natural gas from the Marcellus Shale was already pushing power companies to shut down some coal plants.
"The reality is coal is being outcompeted. Gas is cheaper, and gas is cleaner," Simeone said.
Pittsburgh will host one of four national public hearings on the plan. The hearing is scheduled for July 31.