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A federal appeals board added a new item Thursday to the incoming Obama administration's to-do list: Decide how to factor global warming pollution into plans for new power plants.
It is a subject that has kept regulators and environmentalists on edge for years and that heated up last year, after the Environmental Protection Agency licensed a new 110-megawatt power plant in eastern Utah's high country without any regard to the pollution blamed for global warming.
On Thursday, environmentalists applauded a ruling by the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board that directs regional air officials to reconsider their handling of the Bonanza license.
But Cheryl Heying, director of Utah's Division of Air Quality, said the question of regulating global-warming pollution remains unresolved. How the EPA ultimately handles climate change pollution in licenses reviewed under the Clean Air Act will set a precedent for dozens of coal-fired power plants proposed nationwide, including Bonanza and two others in Utah, she said.
"They have - for lack of a better word - punted."
"Once that decision is made," she added, "it impacts every [power-plant] decision in the country."
She noted that the appeals board did not order EPA air regulators in Denver to set limits on carbon dioxide, as a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision said they had the discretion to do.
Instead, the appeals board appeared to be saying, either come up with a better reason why you think global warming pollutants should not be regulated in new power plants or set a policy on how you will begin regulating them nationwide. The EPA's Denver region had said it was not obligated to consider the greenhouse gas emissions from Bonanza when it issued the Bonanza permit on Aug. 30, 2007.
Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, which wants to add the new waste-fuel plant to its generating station south of Vernal in Uintah County, declined to interpret the Thursday ruling. The permit is handled by federal rather than state officials because it is on Ute tribal land.
"Deseret is analyzing the decision and will make a determination on how best to proceed," said David Crabtree, the cooperative's general counsel.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club, which appealed the Bonanza license last May, said Thursday's ruling "opens the way for meaningful action to fight global warming." The group, along with many state regulators nationally, has prodded the Bush administration to begin addressing global warming pollution, including the emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"The decision gives the Obama administration a clean slate to begin building our clean energy economy for the 21st century," said Joanne Spaulding, the Sierra Club's senior attorney on the case.
In Utah, the outcome is likely to affect two other proposed power plants.
One is the 270-megawatt Sevier Power coal-fired plant proposed for Sigurd. The state-issued license for that plant is being reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court.
The other is the 900-megawatt Unit 3 of the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta, which has been appealed to the Utah Air Quality Board.
Neither of these proposals have been reviewed for the potential impact of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are blamed for climate change. But, if the EPA opts to begin regulating those pollutants, environmental groups could argue that tougher pollution controls are necessary or the plants shouldn't be built at all.
Joanne Spaulding, Sierra Club's attorney
* The Bonanza Power Plant is south of Vernal in Uintah County, just west of the Colorado state line.
* An existing plant generates 400 megawatts. A new unit would turn waste coal into 110 megawatts of additional electricity.
* Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, including six power co-ops in Utah, serves 45,000 customers and sells surplus electricity to cities, power marketers and wholesalers in six states.