By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday kicked off an 11-city "listening tour" as part of its effort to craft emissions rules for existing power plants under the Obama administration's strategy to address climate change.
States that already have plans in place to cut carbon pollution are likely to make the case that their programs offer a viable model for others.
The tour started in New York and Atlanta, with meetings wrapping up on November 8.
The agency is expected to solicit ideas on how best to regulate carbon emissions from the more than 1,000 power plants now in operation. That is the cornerstone and arguably the most controversial part of the administration's program.
The EPA will use a rarely employed section of the federal Clean Air Act, known as section 111(d), and will rely heavily on input from states to craft a flexible rule that can be applied to states with different energy profiles.
President Barack Obama set a June 2014 deadline for the agency to propose its rules, which need to be finalized in June 2015.
REGIONAL INITIATIVE AS ROLE MODEL
Officials from some of the nine northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - a carbon trading program targeting power sector emissions - will make the case that the initiative has a "plug and play" option for states to meet future federal rules.
"We want to make the case ... that RGGI is fully compliant with section 111(d)," said Collin O'Mara, secretary of the environment and energy for Delaware.
Separately, representatives of California are expected to ask the EPA to endorse the state's economy-wide, carbon cap-and-trade system as compliant with future regulations.
It is unclear whether the EPA will choose for its rule a "rate-based" approach - a standard for each plant to meet - or a "mass-based approach," which would allow a state to get credit for cutting pollution across a variety of sectors.
Delaware's O'Mara said he wants to make sure that RGGI states are credited for the "mass-based" approach they have taken. For 2010 through 2012, emissions in the states were, on average, more than 30 percent lower than in 2005.
The regional initiative's approach has already drawn interest from several other states that want to join a program that has already been tried and tested.
Each person who wants to make comments at the EPA sessions will be offered a three-minute slot, said Niloufar Nazmi Glosson, who is coordinating a listening session at the EPA's regional office in San Francisco on November 5.
The sessions are likely to attract speakers ranging from state officials to green groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council to members of the National Association of Manufacturers, which opposes what it calls over-regulation by the EPA in tackling power plant emissions.
California, which has had a $1 billion carbon market in place since January that targets stationary sources like power plants, will use the sessions to tout the benefits of its program.
"We will make the point that we think we have a pretty good model here and we invite them to take a further look at it," said one source in California who is close to the EPA process.
LISTEN AND LEARN
Other states will be in more the listen-and-learn mode, said Jennifer Macedonia, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.
Many "will likely try to incorporate the lowest cost reduction measures, provide for a sufficiently long compliance phase-in to allow for a smooth transition and ensure that the program's requirements won't compromise the availability of affordable and reliable electricity," Macedonia said.
Coal-reliant states such as Kentucky and Pennsylvania are already beginning to weigh options for complying with future EPA carbon-curbing rules.
John Lyons, assistant secretary for climate policy for Kentucky, said this month that it would not make sense for a state like his, which relies on coal for 97 percent of its electricity, to shift completely to cleaner natural gas to meet future EPA standards.
Pennsylvania's public utility commission has requested a meeting with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to talk about the deactivation of two major coal-fired power plants in the state. Both plants cited future EPA rules as a reason for shutting.
Some lawmakers in coal-dependent regions have called on the EPA to hold listening sessions in areas that will be directly affected by carbon emission limits.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said the EPA is preventing those whose livelihoods are at risk from new rules from speaking up.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on the EPA to hold additional sessions in coal-reliant states.
People who attended Wednesday's New York session were largely in support of the EPA's plans, with the exception of a representative of the American Petroleum Institute.
Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the lobby group, said it is concerned that the EPA's planned regulation "goes beyond the authorization of Congress and the Clean Air Act."
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Additional reporting by Rory Carroll in San Francisco and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Ros Krasny and Steve Orlofsky)