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U.S. House advances bill curbing EPA power plant emission limits

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to curb the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on carbon emissions from power plants cleared a hurdle in the House of Representatives on Thursday but faces bleak prospects of becoming law.

The Republican-controlled House passed the bill by a 229-183 vote but the Senate, in which Democrats hold a majority, has no timetable to consider the legislation. President Barack Obama already has threatened to veto the bill.

The legislation was the latest in a series of strong messages sent by lawmakers from large coal producing states to Obama, as his administration aims to cement a legacy of combating climate change by cracking down on carbon emissions.

Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a Republican, said the bill was a "reasonable alternative" to proposed carbon emissions standards by the EPA for new power plants and forthcoming rules to limit pollution from the country's existing power plants.

Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said the bill was "part of the Republicans' ongoing attack on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act authority to address carbon pollution."

The EPA in September proposed a rule that says any future coal plants built in the U.S. must be able to emit at a rate of no more than 1,100 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, far below an estimated 1,700 to 1,900 lbs/MWh for the most efficient plants currently in operation.

The agency is due to release by June what will be the centerpiece of Obama's climate strategy - emissions standards for the country's more than 1,000 existing power plants, the bulk of which burn coal.

Whitfield said on the House floor Thursday the bill would give the "the flexibility to build a coal fired plant in America" if natural gas, which is currently cheap compared with coal, starts to get more expensive.

Coal fired power plants have been less economical to run than cleaner-burning natural gas plants in recent years because gas prices have been at record lows as a result of a surge in domestic gas production.

The bill, crafted by Whitfield and West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin, would repeal any greenhouse gas standards EPA develops for power plant emissions and would require congressional approval should the agency enact regulations targeting the country's existing power plants.

It would also change the way the EPA would set emission standards for new power plants. The current proposal says any new coal plant should be only as emission-intensive as cleaner-burning natural gas.

That would require so-called carbon capture technology, and the first commercial-scale facility with that technology will go online later this year. Opponents of the EPA's moves argue that emissions standards should not be reliant on technology that is not commercially available.

Manchin, who will attempt to steer the measure through the Senate, said the bill is a "reasonable response" to the EPA's rule making and would set a realistic standard for coal plants.

He told Reuters last week that while prospects for the bill in the Senate were dim, he expects it to get a hearing in the Senate energy committee. The panel is chaired by Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has opposed what she termed "overreach" by the EPA toward the coal industry.

Dan Lashof, program director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the bill would gut the president's climate action plan if it were enacted.

"If this bill were to become law, it would seriously cripple the Obama Administration's ongoing drive to curb dangerous carbon pollution, which is harming our air, our lands and our waters, and push us ever faster on a path to unmanageable climate disruption," Lashof said.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a pro-coal group, countered that the legislation ensures Congress has a say in domestic energy policy, balancing the influence of the regulatory agency.

The bill "ensures Congress retains its rightful role in creating policy and institutes safeguards to protect American consumers from attacks on affordable, reliable coal-fueled power," said coalition president Mike Duncan.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny, Bill Trott and Chris Reese)

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