By David Conti

The Obama administration is delaying rules aimed at curbing carbon emissions from power plants and will write a separate implementation plan for states that have threatened to refuse to submit their own.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it needs time to deal with overlapping issues raised in comments on the proposal to deal with new plants -- for which final rules were due Thursday -- and the rules for existing and modified plants that were due in June. EPA will issue final rules under a combined process by "mid-summer," said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the agency's Office of Air and Radiation.

"We think these additional few weeks will give us the time we need ... to finalize a suite of rules that takes into account all these cross-cutting issues," she told reporters during a conference call.

When asked if the agency was delaying to counter a threat by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to overturn the rules, McCabe said "it's all about the best policy outcome."

Coal industry leaders who have fought back against the rules said the delay is a start.

"This delay reflects the EPA's realization that the proposed rule lacks reason and a practical application," said John Pippy, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. "We are hopeful that the revised plan includes an achievable timetable to utilize technologies when they potentially become available."

The move to write a model state plan is a response to mostly Republican-controlled states that have said in lawsuits and letters that the proposed rules overstep the EPA's authority. The state plan will be open to public comment before it's finalized.

"We certainly hope every state will feel it's in their best interest to develop their own plan," McCabe said. "But we do have an obligation to have a state plan available for states that don't submit their own."

The EPA received more than 4 million comments on the rules that direct states to cut carbon emissions to state-specific levels to reach a national reduction of 30 percent. Opponents say President Obama and the EPA are targeting coal at the risk of eliminating the country's biggest source of electrical generation. New coal-fired plants are impossible under the rules and existing plants will be forced offline, analysts say.

Industry groups, unions, utility regulators and others say the proposals jeopardize the grid, jobs and investment.

"I don't see these moves doing anything to address these concerns," said Kevin Sunday, manager of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg.

The Sierra Club, which supports the rules, applauded the EPA.

"This shows that the administration is serious about keeping its promises to protect public health and our planet," said executive director Michael Brune.

Sunday said the EPA needed to combine the rule processes to answer uncertainties, such as whether an existing power plant that makes certain upgrades would then be subject to rules covering new plants. But delaying the final issuance adds uncertainties for companies building natural gas-fired plants. Whenever the rules take effect, they will apply to plants at which construction begins starting this week, Sunday said.

"It's already a tough time for the generation industry," he said, noting the coal plants that companies are retiring because they can't meet other environmental rules, or are no longer economically competitive.

"The administration is turning a deaf ear to mounting concerns being raised by energy experts, grid operators and state officials and is instead continuing its 'go at it alone' mentality -- all to fulfill a misguided presidential legacy," said Mike Duncan, CEO of the Washington-based American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who leaves office Jan. 20, expressed opposition to the plan but did not join in any lawsuits. His replacement, Democrat Tom Wolf, has mentioned concerns with how the plan would affect an energy- and coal-exporting state such as Pennsylvania, but has not given a detailed response to the proposed rules.

"The plan allows for Gov.-elect Wolf to work to implement a flexible plan for Pennsylvania that can be tailored to fit our economic needs," said his spokesman, Jeff Sheridan. "Gov.-elect Wolf knows the rules need to be applied fairly, allow for adjustments, and create opportunities for industries, not additional burdens. Once he is in office, he will work to do this."

(c)2015 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)