Green groups say the nation's top environmental administrator has dropped "a lump of dirty coal" into Americans' Christmas stockings with a memo that says there is no reason to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of coal plants.
But an electric-industry spokesman called the memo by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Steven Johnson "brave." And he asserted that, without its findings, more than 20 different industrial sectors, along with offices, schools, apartments and hospitals, might have been subject to "costly and inflexible permitting requirements."
"If EPA had embraced any other interpretation and determined carbon to be subject to regulation," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, "the result could have been catastrophic for the structure of the [Clean Air] Act, the resources of the agency, the U.S. economy and even the environment itself. "
Utah has become ground zero for the fight over whether the federal Clean Air Act should be taken into account when new coal-fired power plants are built.
Just before Labor Day weekend in 2007, the EPA issued a permit for a power plant on the Ute Indian Reservation in eastern Utah. And, in doing so, the agency opted against considering the climate-change impacts of the proposed plant's emissions.
It was a signal to watchful environmentalists, state regulators and industry on how federal regulators would interpret a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from earlier in the year. In effect, the court cleared the way for regulating greenhouse gases under the clean-air law.
The EPA's permit for the Bonanza plant would have allowed South Jordan-based Deseret Power Electric Cooperative to add a 110-megawatt waste-fuel plant to its generating station south of Vernal in Uintah County.
Whatever happens now will have national implications, since there are more than 100 coal plants in process or under appeal, including two other ones in Utah.
Last month, a decision by the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board basically told federal regulators, either come up with a better reason why you think global warming pollutants should not be regulated in new power plants or else set a policy on how you will begin regulating them nationwide.
Deseret Power officials were not available for comment after hours Thursday.
But Kathy Van Dame of the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition called the latest development "really bad news."
And Joro Walker, a Salt Lake City environmental attorney, said the memo snubs a key appeals board's directive: that any EPA decision on how to handle greenhouse gases must be reviewed and commented on by the public.
"It's a last-minute effort to influence policy" before the Obama administration takes office, said Walker. "But it's not going to work because it was not done properly."
In Utah, the outcome is likely to affect two other proposed power plants.
One is the 270-megawatt Sevier Power coal-fired plant proposed for Sigurd. The state-issued license for that plant is being reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court.
The other is the 900-megawatt Unit 3 of the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta, which has been appealed to the Utah Air Quality Board.
Neither proposal has been reviewed for the potential impact of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are blamed for climate change. But, if the EPA opts to begin regulating those pollutants, environmental groups could argue that tougher pollution controls are necessary or the plants shouldn't be built at all.