WASHINGTON -- Linking global warming to public health, disease and extreme weather, the Obama administration pressed ahead Friday with tough requirements to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, despite protests from industry and from Republicans that it would mean a dim future for coal.
The proposal, which sets the first national limits on heat-trapping pollution from future power plants, would help reshape where Americans get electricity, moving from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by cleaner sources of energy such as solar, wind and natural gas.
It's also a key step in President Barack Obama's global warming plans, because it would help end what he called "the limitless dumping of carbon pollution" from power plants.
The new regulations are expected to have little impact on California, which already had similar rules in place.
In 2006, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that set limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that any new power plants constructed in the state can emit.
That law, SB 1368, by former State Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, also limits the amount of greenhouse gases that any electricity imported from out of state under new contracts can emit. It set a standard that only natural gas can meet in most cases, blocking California from using nearly any new coal-fired power in the future.
"The rest of the country is catching up to California," said Megan Ceronsky, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit group. "California is leading the country in investing in cleaner energy."
On Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said in a speech to announce the national proposal that, rather than damage an industry, the proposed regulations would help the industry to grow.
McCarthy pressed her case by linking global warming to a suite of environmental problems, from severe weather to disease to worsening other types of air pollution.
"We know this is not just about melting glaciers," McCarthy said. "Climate change -- caused by carbon pollution -- is one of the most significant public health threats of our time. That's why EPA has been called to action."
The rule requires that most new natural gas and coal-fired power plants built in the in future can emit no more than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity generated, the same as California's standard. Coal plants typically emit about 1,800 pounds now.
However, since the proposal deals with only new power plants, it will have a limited effect on global emissions of heat-trapping pollution. A separate standard for the existing fleet of power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution, is due next summer from the Obama administration.
Despite some tweaks, the rule packs the same punch as one announced last year, which was widely criticized by industry and by Republicans as effectively banning any new coal-fired power plants.
That's because to meet the standard, new coal-fired power plants would need to install expensive technology to capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground. No coal-fired power plant has done that yet, in large part because of the cost.
Coal, which is already struggling to compete with cheap natural gas, accounts for 40 percent of U.S. electricity, a share that was already shrinking. And natural gas would need no additional pollution controls to comply.
"It is clear that the EPA is continuing to move forward with a strategy that will write off our huge, secure, affordable coal resources by essentially outlawing the construction of new coal plants," said Bruce Josten, the vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Burning coal to generate electricity emits more smog-causing pollutants such as soot, more airborne mercury and more greenhouse gases than burning natural gas to generate electricity. Because of tougher environmental rules, and lower natural gas prices from a major national increase in fracking -- the practice of oil companies pumping water and chemicals underground to crack rock formations and release natural gas and oil -- utilities have increasingly been abandoning coal in favor of natural gas.
California has no large coal-fired power plants, a result of regulations passed decades ago to reduce smog. Some areas of Southern California, particularly through older contracts signed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, continue to import electricity from coal-fired power plants in other states, including Arizona. But those cannot be easily renewed under California's recent greenhouse gas rules.
"The 2006 law was designed to stop the import of new coal-fired energy into California," said Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "That's happened. It's against the law to sign long-term contracts."
California in recent years also has required all utilities to produce 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, has set strict new emissions rules to encourage more electric and hybrid cars, and has set up a mandatory "cap and trade" system in which factories, power plants and other large companies that emit greenhouse gases must buy and sell permits to pollute, with the goal of offering incentives for reducing pollution.