By DINA CAPPIELLO AND JOSH LEDERMAN, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's plans to curb the gases blamed for global warming are heading to their first test, a House hearing in which administration officials make their case before skeptical lawmakers.
The energy panel meeting Wednesday comes just days before a deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency to release a revised proposal setting the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide from newly built power plants.
The rule, which will ultimately force the EPA to tackle emissions from existing power plants as well, is a key component of Obama's strategy to tackle climate change. It is also one of the most controversial, since addressing the largest uncontrolled source of carbon pollution will have ramifications for the power sector and everyone who flips on a light switch.
"Like the president has said, we have a moral obligation to act on climate change and we are using the tools at our disposal to get it done," Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Zichal referred specific questions about the power plant proposal to the EPA, which declined to comment.
The coal industry and its allies in Congress have been quick to criticize the regulation in advance of its release, even though some of the details have yet to be disclosed, saying it will raise electricity prices and the cost of producing power, particularly from coal.
Coal, which supplies nearly 40 percent of U.S. electricity, has been struggling to compete with natural gas, which has seen historic low prices in recent years thanks to a boom brought on by hydraulic fracturing.
"We will not turn a blind eye to efforts to impose back-door climate regulations with no input from Congress," Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, wrote in a letter to Obama on Tuesday. They asked Obama to seek input from Congress before pressing ahead.
The proposal has been in the works for more than a year and stems from a 1970 law passed by Congress to control air pollution. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that that law, the Clean Air Act, could be applied to heat-trapping pollution.
The latest version of the power plant proposal, which updates one released in March 2012, is likely to be more lenient on coal-burning plants than it was initially, but it will still make it very difficult for energy companies to build new coal-fired plants in the U.S. New natural gas power plants will also be covered, but since gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, they will be able to meet the emissions standard more easily.
For coal-fired power plants, the new proposal will eventually require the installation of technology to capture carbon and bury it underground. Not a single power plant in the U.S. has done that, largely because it has not been available commercially and, if it were, it would be expensive.
The administration has $8 billion to dole out in loans to mitigate the cost of developing the technology. But even Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said that "it's not going to happen tomorrow," but sometime in this decade.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and power, said in an interview that he was already crafting legislation that would restrict what the EPA could require of new power plants. Congress could also hinder the EPA by slashing its budget.
"We have the oversight responsibility, and we intend to find out from this administration what they are doing," said Whitfield, who said the hearing will examine all the administration's actions.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Moniz will represent the administration's case. The two officials were among 13 invited.
In prepared testimony, McCarthy said the U.S. "must embrace cutting carbon pollution as a spark for business innovation, job creation, clean energy and broad economic growth."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, said the proposal was a step toward ending an era when power plants were allowed to dump limitless amounts of carbon pollution into the air. The group had threatened to sue the EPA when it failed to finalize the March 2012 proposal within a year but decided against pursuing litigation when Obama vowed to take action on climate.
Obama has given the EPA until next summer to propose a rule controlling heat-trapping pollution at existing power plants.