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By Valerie Volcovici
MORGANTOWN, West Va., Feb 26 (Reuters) - As the Obama administration readies rules to force all U.S. power plants to lower the rate at which they produce greenhouse gases, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a major coal state, is trying to steer a bill through the Senate that he said would hold off the Environmental Protection Agency.
The bill that Manchin, a Democrat, has co-sponsored with a fellow coal-state lawmaker, Kentucky Republican Representative Ed Whitfield, would severely weaken the federal Clean Air Act, environmental groups say.
Congressional sources expect the bill to be put up for a vote next week by the Republican-led House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass. But it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is led by Democrats.
Manchin said in an interview that despite a series of conversations with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the agency seems unwilling to bend on what he characterized as untenable standards that rely on technology that is not viable for capturing carbon emissions from power plants.
"The bottom line is: Show me something that works," Manchin said in an interview at West Virginia University in Morgantown this week, during a conference on how states reliant on coal-generated power can meet future EPA standards.
Manchin, an ardent promoter of his state's coal industry, said he accepts the fact that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act but wants to make it harder for the agency to use that power and to ensure its standards are based on available technology.
West Virginia mined 120 million tons (109 metric tons) of coal in 2012, second to Wyoming, or about 12 percent of total U.S. production. Kentucky was third with about 9 percent of output, according to the National Mining Association.
In both states, coal mining is a vital source of income and jobs. West Virginia mines employed an average of 20,440 workers each month in 2012, the state's coal association estimates.
The Whitfield-Manchin bill would repeal any greenhouse gas standards EPA develops for power plant emissions and would require congressional approval should it 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, which would require carbon capture technology. The first commercial-scale facility using carbon capture technology will go online later this year.
Manchin said the bill is a "very reasonable response" to the EPA's rule making and would set a realistic standard for coal plants.
The EPA would require new coal-fired power plants to emit less than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh), around the same rate as a plant using natural gas. The Whitfield-Manchin bill would set the standard around an average achieved over a one-year period by at least six of the most efficient coal units located at different commercial power plants around the country.
Manchin said one of the model coal plants that would set the average would be the $2 billion Longview facility just outside Morgantown, with one of the lowest emission rates in the country at about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per MWh.
"It's a very clean-burning coal plant, and people need to look at it," Manchin said.
Manchin said that with Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, a pro-energy Democrat, having just taken the helm of the Senate Energy Committee, his bill is likely to at least get a thorough vetting before the EPA rolls out its proposal in June.
"If I get (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid to put the bill to the Energy Committee with Chairman Landrieu, we will get a very good look-see at it," Manchin said. "But even if we pass it out (of committee) we will need to push like the dickens to move it through the Senate."
Manchin may be at odds with the EPA about emissions but is working closely with McCarthy and liberal senators like California's Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate's environment panel, to address the fallout from a recent chemical spill at a coal plant near Charleston, West Virginia.
Despite rapping the EPA for "overreaching" regulations on the coal industry, Manchin was eager to say that West Virginia cannot not afford to be lax when it comes to protecting its drinking water.
He said the January 9 spill, which contaminated the drinking water of about 300,000 residents, should serve as a "wakeup call" for West Virginia and other states, and an opportunity for Congress to revamp chemical safety legislation.
Manchin, fellow West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller and Boxer have introduced a bill that would strengthen inspections of aboveground chemical storage facilities and require industry to develop emergency response plans to handle future contamination.
"This is a chance for us to really get our act together," Manchin said. (Editing by Ros Krasny and Jonathan Oatis)