The Environmental Protection Agency announced a timetable on Thursday for issuing rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and oil refineries, signaling a resolve to press ahead on such regulation even as it faces stiffening opposition in Congress.
But the E.P.A. was vague on how stringent the rules would be and how deep a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would result.
Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the rules would be “cost-effective” but the agency declined to be more specific, saying only that the agency would consider the costs and benefits of available control technologies.
That left open the question of how much money the agency would demand that an industry spend to avoid emitting carbon dioxide.
The E.P.A. seemed at pains to appear reasonable on the challenges of an industry transition: in a conference call with reporters, Ms. McCarthy emphasized that the agency would take a “sensitive and collaborative” approach in issuing rules for plants and refineries.
Power plants and refineries are the nation’s top emitters of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that has been linked to global warming. Having declared greenhouse gases to be a threat to public health last year, the agency begins regulating those emissions on Jan. 2 under the Clean Air Act.
The rules for new power plants and refineries are certain to be challenged by industry, some states, and many Republicans in the House of Representatives who have vowed to limit the agency’s regulatory powers.
The E.P.A.’s announcement drew swift criticism from Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who will become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee next month. “We should be working to bring more power online, not shutting plants down,” he said in a statement.
“We will not allow the administration to regulate what they have been unable to legislate,” he said. “This Christmas surprise is nothing short of a backdoor attempt to implement their failed job-killing cap-and-trade scheme,” he said.
In the conference call, Ms. McCarthy emphasized that the E.P.A. was not imposing a “cap-and-trade” system, a system that sets a ceiling on greenhouse gas pollution while allowing companies to trade permits, at a price that the market determines.
Approved last year in a House bill, cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate this year. Later, opponents called it “cap and tax,” and it became a rallying cry for some midterm election candidates who were opposed to the expansion of government authority over industry and the economy.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several parties that had threatened to sue if the E.P.A. did not set a timetable, welcomed Thursday’s announcement. “E.P.A. is doing precisely what is needed to protect our health and welfare and provide businesses certainty at a time when some would prefer to roll back the clock,” said David Doniger, the policy director for the group’s climate center.
“There is no question that a lot of the newcomers are going to come into town, especially the Republican house, and try to block this,” he said.
On one level, the E.P.A. seemed to be flexing its muscle after drawing criticism from environmental groups for recently deciding to delay issuing standards on conventional pollutants from industrial boilers. But by isolating only power plants and refineries, the agency also seemed to signal that for now, at least, it will go after only big industrial sources.
Coal-fired power plants already face a cascade of new regulations scheduled to take effect in coming months covering their emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, mercury and other pollutants. By putting utilities on notice that it is adding carbon dioxide to the pollutant list, the E.P.A. is increasing pressure on utilities to shut down older coal-fired plants.
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who held Ms. McCarthy’s post under President George W. Bush, noted that the agency was “studious in avoiding” a definition of “cost-effective.”
“I think it’s just their way of saying, what we intend to do will be reasonable,” he said. The E.P.A., he said, has intermittently talked about reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that would pay for themselves because they resulted from improvements in energy efficiency, for example.
But unless the agency demands a fairly high expenditure on the kind of the technology that would be needed to avoid a ton of emissions, reductions will not be achieved, Mr. Holmstead said. “They’re not going to have it both ways for much longer,” he said.
The Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned utilities, said that it could not predict the impact on electricity rates because “we don’t know how stringent the new standards will be.”
“This will be the determining factor as to whether they can be met through efficiency improvements or, if very strict, might result in fuel switching or use of advanced carbon control technologies,” it said in a statement. Fuel switching or installing carbon capture equipment would drive up electric rates, the group said.
Rules for existing power plants could be issued by 2015 or 2016, Ms. McCarthy indicated.