Hundreds of people are expected to attend public hearings this week in a handful of cities across the U.S. to tell federal regulators what they think of proposed rules to cut pollution from power plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency is holding the meetings in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington on President Barack Obama's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030, with 2005 levels as the starting point. The rules are intended to curb global warming.
The Denver meetings set for Tuesday and Wednesday are the only ones being held in the West, where the topic of air pollution traditionally sets off a loud debate over environmental values and economic vitality.
With just five minutes each to make their case to the EPA, opponents and supporters also are staging rallies around Denver.
Three of the top 10 coal-producing states are in the West — Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Wyoming is No. 1, producing nearly 40 percent of the U.S. total and more than three times as much as West Virginia, the No. 2 state, according to the National Mining Association.
States would have wide latitude in choosing how to meet the administration's goals. That leaves an uncertain fate for some of the West's large coal-fired power plants, including New Mexico's 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station and Montana's 2,100 megawatt Colstrip plant.
Montana's governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, says at least some of Colstrip's four generating units could continue to operate if the state can achieve emissions reductions in other areas.
Yet even without the new rules, coal plants face increasing pressure from regulators to rein in other forms of pollution. Federal officials said Monday the Navajo plant will produce one-third less energy by 2020 and could close by 2044 under a separate proposal aimed at reducing haze-causing nitrogen oxide pollution.
Coal mines, electric utilities, labor unions, environmental groups, renewable energy companies, government agencies and religious and civil rights organizations are sending representatives to the Denver hearings.
Mark Fix, a Montana rancher signed up to speak Tuesday, called the rules a "good step in the right direction." He blames climate change for a tornado, flooding and other extreme weather he has witnessed on his ranch.
"There's things out there we need to develop — the hydro, the wind, the solar, a lot of the renewables," Fix said Monday. Fix ranches southwest of Miles City, Montana, and is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council.
Jonathan Downing, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, plans to argue against the rules.
"I think they need to go back to the drawing board," Downing said Monday. "It takes time to develop those (anti-pollution) technologies and have conversions on power plants," and U.S. competitiveness could suffer during the transition, he said.
EPA technical experts will listen to the comments, and a transcript will go into the EPA record, agency spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said. The EPA plans to release the final rules next year.
The agency expects 400 people to speak in Denver and a total of 1,600 in all four cities. Written comments will be accepted until Oct. 16.
Former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said hearing testimony can range from serious questions to political theater.
"People ask some ridiculous ones, which means that they don't care about the answer," said Whitman, a former New Jersey governor who headed the EPA from January 2001 to June 2003.
But the hearings are a legitimate part of the agency's decision-making process, she said.