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New Carbon Dioxide Limits Could Mean Big Changes For Coal-Powered States Like Missouri, Illinois

Ameren Missouri's Labadie Energy Center in Labadie, Missouri.
File Photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first-ever rules to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The proposal sparked immediate debate over the impact, especially in states such as Missouri that depend heavily on coal.

The new regulations would reduce carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide by 2030, compared to 2005 emissions levels.

The proposed rule does not set limits for individual power plants. Instead, the EPA has proposed emission targets for on a state-by-state basis.

Credit Brent Jones, St. Louis Public Radio (data source: the Energy Information Administration)
This graph shows actual 2012 emissions and 2030 targets in pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt hours of energy produced. It includes Missouri, Illinois, and surrounding Midwestern states, in addition to the U.S. average.

This interactive map provides information about each state's proposed emission reductions (just click on Missouri, Illinois, or any other state to learn more). For those who really want to dig into the data, the EPA also provided an Excel file with state carbon dioxide emission totals and reduction targets.

Those targets vary widely from state to state. The EPA calculated them based on each state's current mix of energy sources, how efficiently it is using its energy resources and other factors.

David Weiskopf, a sustainable energy fellow with the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Missouri’s target rate for 2030 is higher than what many states are emitting now.

“I think what this rule is reflecting is an acknowledgement that Missouri is heavily reliant on power plants that are fueled by coal," Weiskopf said. "And it’s not asking anybody to shut them all down and replace them with cleaner power plants immediately.”

The federal government is leaving it up to states to figure out how to comply with the proposed 2030 carbon emission limits. That could include increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses, or investing in energy sources that do not produce carbon dioxide, like nuclear, solar and wind.

Right now, about 80 percent of Missouri’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

Credit Brent Jones, St. Louis Public Radio (data source: Energy Information Administration)

Across the Mississippi River, Illinois gets almost half its electricity from "no carbon" nuclear power but still depends on coal for about 41 percent of its energy needs.

Ameren Corporation’s Vice President of Environmental Services, Mike Menne, said the EPA's proposed carbon dioxide limits are well below what a coal-fired power plant can realistically attain.

“There really is no technology that you can apply to a coal-fired power plant to reduce carbon emissions,” Menne said.

That means to meet the new limits, states like Missouri and Illinois would need to reduce their reliance on coal and invest more in other sources of energy.

Menne said Ameren is already investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. He said transitioning from coal to alternative forms of energy would be costly.

"I don’t think there is any doubt that if this rule goes through as proposed that there will be rate increases to our customers," Menne said.

He said Ameren hopes to work with the Obama Administration on the proposed regulations, to set emission targets that are more in line with the company's existing plans.

But John Hickey, the chapter director for the Missouri Sierra Club, said the new regulations are needed. He said the Midwest is already feeling the negative effects of climate change, like extreme weather and increased agricultural pest problems.

Hickey said shifting away from coal will having the added benefit of reducing other forms of air pollution.

"St. Louis has an epidemic of childhood asthma because our air is so dirty," Hickey said. "When you address carbon dioxide pollution, you also reduce mercury, sulfur dioxide [and] soot."

Cleaner air, Hickey said, means fewer health problems in the long run.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience