WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it would set standards for greenhouse gas emissions from the country's two biggest sources: coal-fired power plants and refineries.
Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said it would be possible to hold down costs, add jobs and reduce overall emissions even as the plants continue to burn fossil fuels. She said it wasn't possible to estimate yet how much emissions would be reduced.
Scientists globally agree that heat-trapping gases are accumulating in the atmosphere mainly because of fossil-fuel use and that sharp cuts in emissions will be needed in the next few decades.
The EPA's new regulations are likely to have only a modest impact despite consensus that dramatic cuts are needed to lower the risks of dangerous climate shifts. A plan to impose mandatory reductions on emissions died in Congress last summer.
The EPA rule would set standards only for new plants and those that make major modifications.
Under a provision of the Clear Air Act, existing plants — about 500 coal-fired power plants and 150 refineries — would operate as usual until states impose their own regulations based on EPA guidelines. McCarthy said state regulations aren't expected until 2015 or 2016.
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA air administrator in the Bush administration who's a lobbyist for the electric industry at Bracewell & Giuliani, predicts the standards will be delayed past the 2012 elections.
"They're out trying to reassure everybody this is going to be reasonable and no big deal," he said. "If that's what they do, then they're not going to be any reduction of emissions and they're going to make the environmental community upset."
Any meaningful restrictions on emissions would make energy costs rise, he said.