Texas has no shortage of high-level complaints about possible regulations to fight manmade climate change, but you won’t hear them in the executive offices at Houston-based Calpine Corp.

CalpineThe electricity producer proudly announced Thursday that it had just gotten approval from air quality regulators in California “to build the nation’s first power plant with a federal limit on greenhouse gas emissions – putting both the plant and the company at the forefront of the fight against global warming.”

The limit is in a federal permit, issued by a regional agency in the San Francisco Bay area, for a new, 600-megawatt plant that will burn natural gas. The plant, to be located on the southeast side of the bay at Hayward, Calif., will supply electricity to area, the company said.
Calpine said the permit places limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is “the most stringent” ever issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, that agency said [pdf] in a separate release.

Environmentalists were quick to praise the action as a possible precedent for the broader regulation of pollutants that scientists blame for causing global warming and climate change.

Whether the Calpine plant’s permit will be such a model is a question, however, that is clouded by gathering uncertainties about whether such regulations are coming – and if they are, what form they could take.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which delegates authority to issue emission permits under the federal Clean Air Act to state and local agencies such as the Bay Area district in California, is moving ahead with plans to institute the first national regulations for greenhouse gases under that law.

Calpine’s announcement emphasized that the permit for its plant was issued one day after an EPA advisory committee voted on guidelines for federal permits under such regulations “to major sources of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change, such as power plants and oil refineries.”

The permit was discussed at the advisory committee’s meeting “as a ‘case study’ for how the existing Clean Air Act can be used to regulate emissions of heat-trapping pollutants,” the company said.

Some members of Congress have said, however, that they want to try to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under that law.

The House-passed energy-climate bill known as the American Clean and Energy Security Act (and as the Waxman-Markey bill) would place a declining cap on emissions of greenhouse gases by major industrial facilities including power plants and create a system to trade emission permits.

Members of the Senate continue to work on an energy-climate bill, with some recent reports from Washington indicating that one idea under consideration would include cap-and-trade rules only for power plants, which produce roughly one-third of the nation’s greenhouse emissions.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, said this week it is “conceivable” that the Senate might “separate” the controversial cap-and-trade concept from other provisions in its version of energy-climate legislation.

The future of California’s adopted, but not yet implemented, cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases is likewise unclear.

The Greenwire news service, in an article also published on the New York Times Web site, reported that the Calpine permit “was issued with an eye on greenhouse gas restrictions set to be implemented in California in less than two years,” but that it is “unclear how permits issued before the advent of the market might be counted under a regulated regime.”

Greenwire also noted that there is a move under way in California to suspend the state’s pending cap-and-trade regulations until the economy improves:

Voters will most likely get to decide for themselves this fall whether climate regulations should go forward, as opponents of A.B. 32 (the state’s climate law) are in the process of gathering signatures to place on the November ballot a measure that would tie the law to high unemployment levels. If the measure makes it onto the ballot, and voters approve it, California could see its climate law delayed until unemployment dips below 5.5 percent.

Calpine said that its plant, named the Russell City Energy Center for an unincorporated area near Hayward, would use advanced combined-cycle technology, making it “significantly cleaner than older power plants currently in operation.”

The facility “will be designed to operate in a way that produces 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than even the most advanced coal-fired plants and 25 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the standard set by the California Public Utilities Commission,” the company said.

Lower-emission plants such as the Hayward facility can provide “a reliable backstop” for intermittent power from renewable sources such as wind and solar, helping California meet its goals for a third of the power produced by utilities there to be from renewables by 2020 and for a 15 percent cut in greenhouse emissions from current levels, the Calpine announcement added.

Greenwire reported that a company spokeswoman said the plant will be a “baseload” facility, which means it will be designed and operated in order to meet the service area’s minimum, continuing demand for electricity.

Calpine obtained the permit containing restrictions on greenhouse gases amid renewed efforts by some in the natural gas industry to promote the fuel as a climate-friendlier alternative to coal in power plants. Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned.

In an article on plans for a lobbying effort by natural gas producers to influence climate legislation in the Senate, the Dallas Morning News reported last September that the industry had won some allies among environmentalists. It cited a joint lobbying visit to Capitol Hill by the top officials of the Sierra Club and Chesapeake Energy, the Oklahoma-based company active in producing gas in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas.

Most of Calpine’s power plants use natural gas. The remainder are geothermal plants in California. The company lists gas-fired plants in Texas at Houston, Baytown, Richmond, Pasadena, Corpus Christi, Deer Park, Texas City, Freeport, Edinburg, and in Freestone County.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Calpine Corp.