PITTSBURGH – The Environmental Protection Agency opened two days of public hearings in Pittsburgh Thursday on its controversial proposed regulations for coal-fired power plants.
By midday, the agency heard from scores of people supporting or opposing its proposal to cut carbon pollution from coal-burning plants by 30 percent by 2030.
A huge crowd of supporters and opponents was on hand at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, including a large contingent of United Mine Workers of America members.
Testimony, which began just after 9 a.m., was conducted simultaneously in two separate rooms of Pittsburgh’s federal building, where people were expected to present statements for 11 hours Thursday and again Friday.
On June 2, the EPA, under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, proposed a plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants. According to information provided by the EPA, the plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, making up about one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions.
The plan set a goal to cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent by 2030.
The Clean Power Plan estimates there would be public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion per year in 2030, far outweighing the costs of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion.
While the initial testimony Thursday appeared to be split evenly between those who said they supported the plan and those who opposed it, most of the opposition came from representatives and supporters of the coal industry in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
John Pippy, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, which represents 310 companies or about 90 percent of the state’s coal industry, told the panel of EPA representatives that coal is responsible for 36,000 jobs and has a $4 billion annual impact on the state’s economy.
Coal provides about 40 percent of electric generation in Pennsylvania, Pippy said. He cited state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants were reduced by 12 percent between 2005 and 2012. He said the decline in CO2 emissions is expected to be reduced by 22 percent by 2020.
But Pippy said that under the EPA’s proposal, coal consumption would be reduced by 70 percent by 2030, meaning that most coal-fired plants would be decommissioned.
Pippy was one of several speakers who questioned how that many closed plants would be replaced by other forms of energy to keep the country in ample electricity supplies.
“Ninety-five percent of the coal plants that were in use during last winter’s polar vortex won’t be around by 2030,” he said.
Pippy’s request the EPA slow down its proposed path for eliminating carbon emissions was echoed by Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s secretary of state.
“Whether this administration chooses to recognize it or not, the fact is coal powers nearly 40 percent of our electricity in this country. It’s not going anywhere,” Tennant said. “Trying to squeeze coal out of the energy equation is not only unrealistic, it is dangerous and irresponsible.”
Tennant suggested the federal government invest in more research in carbon capture and storage, noting “there is about $8 billion sitting around unused as part of a Department of Energy loan guarantee program already intended for CCS development.”
She added her state is home to the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University and the National Energy Technology Lab in Morgantown.
“Work with us, not against us,” Tennant said. “Instead of attacking coal jobs with regulations, invest in West Virginia and we will deliver the technology to cut emissions without cutting jobs.”
Her testimony was applauded by about 20 members of the United Mine Workers of America who attended the hearing wearing camouflage T-shirts bearing the union’s logo.
But in another room filled with those waiting to testify, Fred Kraybill of Pittsburgh, a registered nurse who also owns an apartment building that uses solar panels for some of its energy, challenged a pro-coal billboard he saw on the turnpike that said coal “is red, white and blue and surprisingly green.”
“If it’s really green, then it’s time to begin sequestering their carbon pollution and shutting down aging power plants,” he said in supporting the EPA’s proposal.
The plan also drew support from Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, who praised the health benefits of reducing carbon pollution.
According to the EPA, reducing exposure to particle pollution and ozone in 2030 will avoid a projected 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths; 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children; 340 to 3,300 heart attacks; 2,700 to 2,800 hospital admissions and 470,000 to 490,000 missed school and work days.
Dahlkemper said her county is looking with adjacent counties in Ohio at opportunities to create offshore wind farms on Lake Erie.
“The Clean Power Plan is an important first step in addressing climate change,” she said.
The plan also drew support from Patrick Grenter, executive director for the Center for Coalfield Justice, who said the EPA should strengthen the standard “by prioritizing renewable energy and energy efficiency. Communities like those in the Southwestern Pennsylvania coalfields should have a significant role to play in this process now and in the future because they are the ones that stand to be among the most impacted through this transition to a coal-free generation.”
Dahlkemper reiterated her comments later Thursday morning at a “Climate Action Rally” in the August Wilson Center, adjacent to the federal building. She was among several speakers, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, voicing support for the Clean Power Plan before a crowd of about 200 people. The rally was sponsored by a number of environmental groups, including Penn Future, Penn Environment and the Sierra Club.
Despite the controversial nature of EPA’s proposal, Thursday’s events proceeded peacefully, with little “street theater” or protests.
At the rear of the federal building, several sport utility vehicles bearing U.S. Homeland Security identification were parked.
Another day of testimony is scheduled at the federal building Friday.
The EPA’s Pittsburgh hearings were preceded by public hearings in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C., earlier in the week.