WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's timeline for implementing new rules requiring utilities to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals is too aggressive and could put the reliability of the nation's electric grid at risk, company executives said on Friday.
The EPA has proposed a three-year schedule for power plants to comply with new pollution rules for utilities, but the executives said that is not enough time for companies to adjust to the complex regulations.
"If EPA continues on its present path, the result will be to harm power consumers ... and threaten jobs and economic growth," Thomas Fanning, head of Southern Co, told lawmakers at a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the EPA regulations.
The anti-pollution regulations proposed by EPA last month would require many coal-fired power plants to install scrubbers and other technologies to cut the levels of arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases in addition to mercury escaping through smokestacks and eventually reaching water supplies, which can damage nervous systems in babies.
Fanning said the new rules coupled with a suite of other pollution regulations being pursued by EPA will raise costs and force a significant amount of plants to shut down, hampering the nation's ability to handle periods of high electricity demand or power outages.
The EPA can extend the compliance deadline for individual plants by up to a year, but Fanning said that is still too little time for companies to make necessary modifications.
Anthony Earley, executive chairman for DTE Energy, said utilities have already made great strides in lowering air pollution since the Clean Air Act was proposed in the 1970s and there is no urgent need to move ahead with EPA's current regulatory timeline.
Republicans in the House of Representatives said this week they plan to introduce a bill to delay the pollution rules for utilities, as well as those for boilers and cement plants.
"The goal is not to repeal these regulations. it is to advance them in a reasonable way," Energy and Commerce committee chairman Fred Upton said at the hearing.
Clean Energy Group, a coalition of energy companies including Exelon Corp, spoke against delaying the EPA's utility pollution rules.
"While complying with these obligations will take planning and significant resources by the electric sector ... we anticipate that the electric sector can comply with the Act's requirements," the group's executive director Michael Bradley said at the hearing.
"EVAPORATING PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION"
When Republicans took control of the House this year, they pledged to greatly increase oversight of the environmental agency. But lawmakers complained the EPA failed to provide a witness for the House hearing on Friday, as well as other House hearings held this week.
"They don't seem to ever show up and be accountable," said Representative Joe Barton, who referred to the agency as the "evaporating personnel administration."
EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a letter to the subcommittee chairman that she could not attend Friday's hearing because she had "long-standing obligations" that she was unable to change on "such short notice." McCarthy expressed willingness to testify at a "mutually agreeable future date."
Bobby Rush, the top Democrat on that subcommittee, defended the EPA's absence at the hearing.
"We don't give the EPA proper notice," Rush said. "I know they have a lot of employees over there but they have very few employees who have this kind of expertise."
(Editing by Alden Bentley)