Power plants in South Carolina must cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than half by 2030 under a new federal environmental proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced specific targets for all states Monday as part of an Obama administration effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.

Existing power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution, and the EPA's proposal marks the first time they have been targeted for such emissions.

"Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy and our way of life," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. "By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids."

South Carolina's 2012 carbon emission rate was almost 1,600 pounds per megawatt hour of energy produced. The new goal is just over 770 pounds.

Currently, about 26 percent of the power generated in South Carolina is from coal-fired power plants. About 57 percent comes from nuclear units. The rest is generated from natural gas and other sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Utilities react

State-owned utility Santee Cooper blasted the proposed requirement while investor-owned S.C. Electric & Gas Co. said a balance will have to be achieved between the environment and electricity costs as the measure moves through the approval process during the next year or so.

"Today's EPA-proposed rule would require South Carolina electric utilities to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 51 percent by 2030. This is an oppressive requirement, and greater than the percent reductions required of 47 other states," Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. "If it stands, this standard will hurt South Carolina's economy by driving up power costs and driving away industry and the jobs they provide."

Much of what the EPA suggests utilities should do to lower carbon emissions, Gore said Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper is already doing.

"Santee Cooper has proactively cut emission levels 23 percent since 2005. Unfortunately, the EPA's proposed CO2 reduction counter starts at 2012," she said. "We have closed coal units, we have implemented significant energy-efficiency programs, we have added more than 130 megawatts of renewable generation, and we are using more natural gas generation."

The utility plans to thoroughly study the proposal and respond to the EPA.

"Chief among our considerations will be minimizing economic harm, protecting jobs for South Carolinians and maintaining a competitive business climate for industry," Gore said.

SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said it's not surprising new carbon emission rules are being proposed in light of more recent moves by the EPA to curb other emissions from power plants, but he added that some middle ground might have to be achieved in the Palmetto State.

"Our leadership here and in South Carolina has been pretty consistent in striking a balance between environmental consideration and ensuring availability of reliable and reasonably priced electricity," Boomhower said.

He added that once the two nuclear units being built north of Columbia are completed by 2018, 60 percent of SCE&G's electric production will come from non-greenhouse gas-emitting sources.

SCE&G last week proposed a 2.99 percent overall surge in electric rates to help pay for construction costs of its new nuclear units. If approved by October, it will be the seventh increase in rates to pay for the new reactors.

The Cayce-based utility in recent years closed down three coal units in Colleton County and converted some units at other plants to natural gas.

"We have invested several hundred million dollars in emission-reducing equipment, expanded our renewable energy portfolio, added 20 megawatts of solar power and started customer-focused, energy-efficiency programs," Boomhower said.

Other views

The state will have a say in how to respond to the proposed EPA rule as well.

"We are currently reviewing today's announcement of this new 645-page federal regulation," S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said. "I am deeply concerned it will carry a tremendous cost to our state, our economy and our families through significantly higher energy bills. We need more reliable, affordable energy options, not less reliable and more costly ones."

The Southern Environmental Law Center cheered the new rules, saying the Palmetto State's coastal cities stand to lose the most as climate change raises sea levels. It also said South Carolina is well-positioned to meet the new emission limits by already shifting away from coal and toward solar and other energy sources.

"The Palmetto State is pivoting to cleaner, more secure energy sources that sharpen our competitive edge, make us more secure, and reduce impacts to resources like our beautiful beaches and productive farms," said Blan Holman, senior attorney in SELC's Charleston office.

Citing government data, the group said South Carolina has already reduced its carbon pollution by almost a third since 2005. Those reductions came because the state burned less coal while its economy and population expanded, according to the agency.

SELC predicts reductions will continue as South Carolina joins states such as Florida to generate more clean energy from sources such as wind and solar.

The S.C. General Assembly recently passed a landmark bill to boost solar power production, and the state's utilities have embarked on energy-efficiency initiatives with the potential to greatly reduce coal consumption and carbon production statewide.

"Job creators like Boeing, BMW and Google seek the clean energy we are building in South Carolina," said Holman. "Some doomsayers resist improvements that protect human health, but time and time again, they are proved wrong as prosperity grows along with clean-energy innovation."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.