Its proposed First Carbon Pollution Standard for Future Power Plants is an achievable standard in line with investments already being made, says the US Environmental Protection Agency, and will inform the building of new plants moving forward.

Environmentalists are applauding the move, but generators take a different view. The proposed new limits would probably prohibit construction of any coal-fired facilities, say critics. The rule would set a standard well within the capability of modern gas-fired plants but informed opinion seems to be that they would be impossible for coal-fired units to meet unless they employ carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Reuters reported an almost immediate drop in the shares of US coal companies which slipped by by 2 to 3 percent. The Dow Jones coal index .DJUSCL fell 2.66 percent.

The new Rule follows from a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, and is the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon pollution from new power plants. It “reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies, including new, clean-burning, efficient natural gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants. At the same time, the rule creates a path forward for new technologies to be deployed at future facilities that will allow companies to burn coal, while emitting less carbon pollution” says the EPA. The rulemaking only concerns new generating units that will be built in the future, and does not apply to existing units already operating, or units that will start construction over the next 12 months.

“Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies – and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow. We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids” said EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

Currently, there is no uniform national limit on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. As a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling, EPA in 2009 determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans’ health and welfare by leading to long lasting changes in the USA’s climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.

The proposed standard is flexible, says EPA, and would help minimise carbon pollution through the deployment of the same types of modern technologies and steps that power companies are already taking to build the next generation of power plants. Its proposal, it says, is in line with these investments and will ensure that this progress toward a cleaner, safer and more modern power sector continues. The proposed standards can be met by a range of power facilities burning different fossil fuels, including natural gas technologies that are already widespread, as well as coal with technologies to reduce carbon emissions. Even without today’s action, the power plants that are currently projected to be built going forward would already comply with the standard. As a result, EPA does not project additional cost for industry to comply with this standard.

Prior to developing this standard, EPA engaged in an extensive and open public process to gather the latest information to aid in developing a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. The agency is seeking additional comment and information, including public hearings, and will take that input fully into account as it completes the rulemaking process. EPA’s comment period will be open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.

The rules aren’t final, and could be changed by a future Republican administration. But major business groups, especially those that benefit from cheap coal-fired power, were harshly critical.

“Requiring coal-based power plants to meet an emissions standard based on natural gas technology is a policy overtly calculated to destroy a significant portion of America’s electricity supply,” said Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Association, whose members include coal companies. “This proposal is the latest convoy in EPA’s regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop.”