In a First, EPA Proposes Emissions Limits for Existing Power Plants

May 11, 2023 by Dan McCue
In a First, EPA Proposes Emissions Limits for Existing Power Plants
(Photo by Steve PB via Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed the first-ever regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The proposals steer clear of mandating the use of equipment or a specific technology to capture emissions before they leave a power plant’s smokestack and instead impose caps on pollution rates, leaving it to plant operators to determine the best, most cost-effective way for their facilities to meet them.

That could be through the installation of air scrubbing tools or other technologies, or, when it comes to natural gas power plants, it could mean switching to a fuel source like green hydrogen, which does not emit carbon.

According to the Biden administration, the new rules would have a big impact, effectively eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the United States’ electricity sector by 2040.

Currently there are about 3,400 coal- and gas-fired power plants in the U.S. and they account for about 25% of all greenhouse gasses produced in the nation.

In a press release announcing the regulations, the administration said the proposal would avoid up to 617 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide through 2042 — equivalent to reducing the annual emissions of 137 million passenger vehicles, roughly half the cars in the United States. 

The proposals would also result in cutting tens of thousands of tons of particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, harmful air pollutants that are known to endanger public health.

In 2030 alone, the EPA said, the proposed standards would prevent approximately 1,300 premature deaths; more than 800 hospital and emergency room visits; more than 300,000 cases of asthma attacks; 38,000 school absence days; and 66,000 lost workdays.

“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and well-being,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a written statement. 

He is scheduled to announce the new regulations during an appearance later today at the University of Maryland.

“EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future,” he continued. 

“Alongside historic investment taking place across America in clean energy manufacturing and deployment, these proposals will help deliver tremendous benefits to the American people — cutting climate pollution and other harmful pollutants, protecting people’s health, and driving American innovation,” Regan said.

The newly proposed regulations come on the heels of other administration initiatives intended to curb methane leaks from oil and gas pipelines and wells, and ramp up the country’s transition to electric vehicles.

This is in addition to the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, which pumps about $370 billion into clean energy programs through grants and other funding mechanisms.

“Today’s announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency codifies what is already happening: America’s electricity generation is embracing every technology to reach ambitious clean energy goals,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president for the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington.

“This move provides a clear set of rules for utilities to operate by, using whatever fuel or technology they want — as long as it can meet climate pollution standards,” Freed said. “What’s more, this rule provides flexibility.

“This allows states and plant owners to use a wide variety of proven technologies to comply, and also adopt the latest and most advanced technologies on new plants,” he continued. “Because of this flexibility, carbon capture will play an important part in making the electricity grid cleaner. 

“This will help keep some efficient natural gas plants operating longer with almost no emissions and help the U.S. capture a $600 billion carbon capture market projected to create roughly 103,000 total jobs from 2020 to 2050. 

“This is the kind of pragmatic action that’s good for American consumers, companies and the climate,” he added.

That said, the proposal is sure to face stiff opposition from the affected power plant operators and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Among them is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said in a statement provided to reporters this morning that the new rules are an example of President Biden “outsourcing his energy policy to the radical left,” in the process “outsourcing away America’s energy security and independence.”

“Today, the EPA resurrected the devastating climate regulations that liberals have spent more than a decade trying to drop on folks in Kentucky, West Virginia and the rest of coal country,” McConnell continued. “By imposing unworkable deadlines and unproven technologies not commercially available, this latest version of Democrats’ so-called ‘Clean Power Plan’ poses an existential threat to providers of affordable and reliable American energy. 

“Complying with Washington bureaucrats’ latest wishes requires technology that producers cannot access, costs that they cannot swallow, and pain that lower-income ratepayers cannot stomach,” he said.

McConnell went on to dismiss the proposed rules as a “sequel to a failed Obama-era policy.”

“The Obama-Biden war on coal has come in many different forms, but the same basic disdain for Middle America keeps showing its face,” McConnell said. “Democrats’ obsession with Green New Deal social engineering would further compound the pain their historic inflation has already caused. Their agenda is a recipe for soaring energy prices, electricity blackouts and less national security.

“Working Americans cannot afford this — and Kentuckians and West Virginians least of all.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is also opposed to the bill and vowed to oppose every one of Biden’s nominees to the EPA unless the administration rolls back its proposal. 

“This administration is determined to advance its radical climate agenda and has made it clear they are hell bent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence, no matter the cost to energy security and reliability,” Manchin said in a statement.

“Just last week, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, every FERC commissioner agreed that we cannot eliminate coal today or in the near future if we want to have a reliable electric grid,” Manchin said. 

“If the reports are true, the pending EPA proposal would impact nearly all fossil-fueled power plants in the United States, which generate about 60% of our electricity, without an adequate plan to replace the lost baseload generation,” he continued. “This piles on top of a broader regulatory agenda being rolled out designed to kill the fossil industry by a thousand cuts.

“Neither the bipartisan infrastructure law nor the IRA gave new authority to regulate power plant emission standards. However, I fear that this administration’s commitment to their extreme ideology overshadows their responsibility to ensure long-lasting energy and economic security and I will oppose all EPA nominees until they halt their government overreach,” he said.

Jim Matheson, president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade association representing nearly 900 local electric cooperatives, said in a statement that the proposal would “further strain America’s electric grid and undermine decades of work to reliably keep the lights on across the nation.”

“And it is just the latest instance of EPA failing to prioritize reliable electricity as a fundamental expectation of American consumers. We’re concerned the proposal could disrupt domestic energy security, force critical, always-available power plants into early retirement, and make new natural gas plants exceedingly difficult to permit, site and build,” he said.

“Nine states experienced rolling blackouts last December as the demand for electricity exceeded the available supply. Those situations will become even more frequent if EPA continues to craft rules without any apparent consideration of impacts on electric grid reliability. 

“American families and businesses rightfully expect the lights to stay on at a price they can afford. EPA needs to recognize the impact this proposal will have on the future of reliable energy before it’s too late,” Matheson said.

Others, like the Edison Electric Institute, an organization that lobbies on behalf of investor-owned electric utilities, were noncommittal on Thursday.

“For the third time in nine years, EPA is proposing to limit carbon emissions from power plants using Clean Air Act section 111,” said the institute’s president, Tom Kuhn. “Just as we do with any rulemaking, we will assess EPA’s proposed new regulations through the lens of whether they align with our priorities and support our ability to provide customers with the reliable clean energy they need at an affordable cost.”

The group, which has met with regulators several times over the past 18 months as the proposal was being drafted, acknowledged “there have been many legal and technical ups and downs throughout this regulatory process” but said it remained committed “to continuing to work with administrator Regan and his team throughout the rulemaking process.”

As McConnell suggested, the desire to regulate emissions from power plants is nothing new.

In August 2015, President Obama announced a sweeping package of rules — his “Clean Power Plan” — that would have largely replaced the nation’s aging coal-fired power plants with wind and solar farms and other forms of clean, renewable energy.

The policy never went into effect. First it was blocked by litigation that eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, it was rolled back by former President Donald Trump, who imposed his own, more fossil fuel-friendly policy.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that while the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions in a limited way, it could not impose state-level caps on carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

On Thursday, Lissa Lynch, federal climate legal director at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, called the EPA proposal “one of the most important steps we can take to confront the climate crisis.”

“It targets the source of a third of the nation’s carbon footprint — the climate pollution from power plants that burn coal and gas. It’s long past time to rein it in,” she said.

But Lynch goes on to say the proposal, in her organization’s view, does not go far enough.

“It doesn’t address the full range of disproportionate harm that fossil fuels inflict, especially on low-income communities and people of color,” she said. “Beyond this rule, the federal government, state and local leaders, and industry must act to reduce those harms and to ensure that everyone has access to clean and affordable energy. We cannot build the clean energy economy of the future on the backs of those who’ve paid the highest price for the fuels of the past. 

“What’s essential now is for the EPA to move forward without delay to strengthen and finalize robust and durable standards by early next year to confront the rising costs and mounting dangers of the widening climate crisis,” Lynch said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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