By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Proposed pollution standards for new U.S. power plants, a central part of the Obama administration's climate change plan, should not rely on a soon-to-be completed project in Mississippi as an example of how to capture emissions from coal-fired power plants, the plant's owner said on Thursday.
Danny Herrin, director of environmental affairs at the Southern Co utility, was one of more than 100 witnesses to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency's first public hearing on its proposed rule targeting carbon emissions from new plants.
In Kemper County, Mississippi, Southern is building one of the world's first advanced coal-fired plants capable of capturing carbon dioxide emissions through a process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
CCS is a process of capturing carbon waste from sources such as power plants, and transporting it to storage sites, often underground.
The technology has not yet been deployed on a commercial scale, but the EPA highlighted the pending Kemper project in September when the agency unveiled plans to set strict limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be generated by newly-built U.S. power plants.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at the time that projects like Kemper will use CCS technology already available. Southern Co tried to distance itself from the EPA at that time.
On Thursday, Herrin strengthened Southern Co's call on the EPA to refrain from using Kemper as an example of the current viability of CCS and from there justify setting tough standards for all new coal plants.
"Kemper marks a significant technological milestone but it is only the first step," Herrin said, adding that the EPA's proposed standards should also not rely on the handful of other demonstration CCS projects now being developed.
Under the Clean Air Act, the basis for the proposed power plant rule, the EPA must set pollution standards using the "best system of emission reduction" using technology that has been "adequately demonstrated."
Questions about the viability of CCS came up several times in Thursday's hearing, from both opponents and supporters of the proposed EPA rule.
Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, a leading advocate of climate legislation who plans to retire at year-end, said on Thursday that claims that the CCS technology isn't commercially viable were "scare tactics."
"We have decades of experience with each piece of a carbon pollution control system," he said. "This technology is real and available today."
Jacqui Patterson, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Climate Justice Initiative, supported the EPA proposal but said, "we do not yet fully understand the impacts CCS will have." EPA should encourage investment in "proven renewable technologies," Patterson said.
Opponents, including several Republican lawmakers, have argued that EPA's proposal may violate the Energy Policy Act of 2005 because it relied on three projects - including Kemper - that have received federal funding to determine that CCS is "adequately demonstrated."
The law says that projects receiving assistance from the entities like the U.S. Department of Energy cannot be the sole factor in determining that a technology is viable.
"We cannot rely on taxpayer funding to bring this technology to every power plant in America - it's simply not feasible," West Virginia Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito said on Thursday.
The EPA on Thursday issued a notice for public comment to demonstrate that it did not rely solely on the federally-funded projects to show CCS was the best available technology, but also considered "other information."