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A congressional investigation is opening into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision to allow a Utah company to build a coal-fired power plant in what a senior congressman calls a "blatant" willingness to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and a flagrant unwillingness to curb global warming.

On Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told EPA chief Stephen Johnson to reconsider the permit granted to Deseret Power for a 110-megawatt coal plant in Uintah County, and demanded he explain his actions to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform by Oct. 3.

In a letter to Johnson, Waxman called the EPA's decision "both illegal under the Clean Air Act and an enormous missed opportunity." He called on Johnson to cooperate with his committee's investigation into how and why the EPA issued the permit despite the court ruling and coal plants' known contribution to global warming.

The Bonanza permit issued Aug. 30 is the first for a coal-fired power plant since the Supreme Court in April ruled that greenhouse gas emissions can be regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In the permit, the EPA denied it had to consider the impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in setting the permit's pollution control requirements. The plant would emit nearly 2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

While the state normally issues air-quality permits for power plants, the Bonanza plant is on tribal lands and under federal jurisdiction. The permit dashed faint hopes that the Bush administration would quit ignoring climate change science and recognize the need to regulate greenhouse gases.

What's particularly egregious is that the company would build the plant to burn waste coal rather than pay to have it hauled to a hazardous waste site, Sierra Club national president Robert Cox said Thursday in Salt Lake City.

"It will be an indefensible decision. It will not stand," Cox said.

Deseret Power president Kimball Rasmussen, based in South Jordan, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

Waxman's letter also pointed out that the EPA is now considering three other coal-fired power plants in New Mexico, Nevada and New York that would each produce 10 times more global warming pollution than the Deseret Power plant. Construction would require billions of dollars of investment at a time when federal authorities and financial markets are growing increasingly wary of conventional coal energy.

Johnson is to consider the climate-change impact of the plants or provide a detailed explanation for the legal and technical grounds for the decision to issue permits, Waxman said.

But the congressman already has an opinion about the Bonanza permit's wording that essentially said that, because EPA has not regulated carbon dioxide emissions in the past, it cannot do so now.

"This is a bootstrap argument that conflicts with the plain language of the statute and blatantly misconstrues the Supreme Court's recent holding," Waxman wrote. "EPA used the permit decision to enunciate a tortured new legal theory for why the agency does not have authority to regulate CO2 emissions . . . and why it need not require new plants to use cleaner technology."

Earlier this month, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on climate change submitted its priority list for cutting the combustion-engine emissions that account for most greenhouse gases. Utah also has signed a regional agreement with California and four other states to cut greenhouse gases 15 percent by 2020 because federal leaders are failing to take action.

The agreement means Utah must eliminate about 11.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Construction of the Bonanza plant would make the goal more elusive.

Bonanza debate

* The Bonanza Power Plant is south of Vernal in Uintah County, just west of the Colorado state line.

* About 400 megawatts are generated by the existing plant.

* A new generating station is proposed to turn waste coal into 110 megawatts of additional electricity.

* Deseret Power Electric Cooperative , including four power co-ops in Utah, serves 45,000 customers and sells surplus electricity to cities, power marketers and wholesalers in six states.

Source: Deseret Power Electric Cooperative and the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club

Bonanza power plant