EPA unveils first nationwide action to curb climate-changing pollution from power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed a rule that would limit climate-damaging pollution from US power plants for the first time. It stipulates that coal and gas-fired power plants, which generate most of the country’s electricity, must eliminate or close virtually all emissions over the next 17 years.

Months after President Joe Biden signed historic legislation providing billions in federal dollar carrots for electric vehicles and zero-carbon energy, his administration is resonating with a slew of regulations designed to accelerate the move away from methane gas, oil and coal by tightening rules on pipeline Leaks, climate-damaging refrigerant chemicals and exhaust emissions.

The power plant rule is that the most anticipated so far. The Suggestion faces months of public comment and debate, and is likely to spark lawsuits from Republican attorneys general in states that have successfully blocked the federal government’s recent attempt to limit greenhouse gases from electric utilities.

If implemented, the rule would transform an energy sector that burns fossil fuels to generate 60% of the country’s electricity and cause a quarter of US emissions. Eliminating carbon from transportation and buildings, the other two largest sources of greenhouse gases, requires the use of much more electricity to power cars, cook and heat. Unless that electricity comes from zero-carbon sources, electrification merely shifts emissions from one sector to another.

“When President Biden took office, he launched the most ambitious climate agenda in the history of the United States, because in every corner of our country Americans are seeing and feeling the devastating effects of climate change,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a speech Thursday morning University of Maryland.

All coal-fired power plants planning to operate beyond 2039 must capture 90% of emissions by 2035 using technology that filters carbon dioxide from stacks before the gas is released into the atmosphere. From nearly two dozen US institutions listed According to the Global CCS Institute, none of the currently operational CO2 capture technologies are coal-fired.

Large, frequently operated and new gas plants will have the option of either using carbon capture technology or replacing some of the natural gas with low-carbon hydrogen fuel. The rule relaxes requirements for gas-fired power plants, which wait for “peak power” and only turn on when demand from the grid exceeds supply – a particular need in regions with a higher share of wind and solar power, which decreases depending on weather conditions and decreases .

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 22 in Washington.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 22 in Washington.

Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Power plants that cannot meet these requirements have the option of shutting down early.

Carbon capture and hydrogen are not new technologies, nor are they explicitly supported. Some environmentalists have called carbon capture a “false solution” to avoiding fossil fuel bans, arguing that none of the many technologies that the term describes will affordably reduce emissions from burning oil, gas or coal can eliminate. Critics also complain about the necessity Thousands of kilometers of new pipelines transporting captured carbon dioxide to storage wells, which a recent leak in a Mississippi city showed can have serious health implications.

“Carbon capture is nothing more than a propaganda scheme by the fossil fuel industry,” Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of the left-wing Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “Billions of dollars have been wasted proving this technology is real – and all we have to show for it is a series of spectacular failures.” Throwing good money after bad is not a climate solution – it is an industry bailout.”

Holly Jean Buck, University at Buffalo professor and author of Ending Fossil Fuels called that the claim that carbon capture doesn’t work is an “industry talking point” from companies who “don’t want to pay to install it” despite public statements supporting the technology.

Researchers studying carbon capture say it is effective and ready to go mainstream thanks to new federal grants in the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate law. Because the US has accounted for the largest share of cumulative carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the past two centuries, carbon capture advocates say the country has a unique responsibility for developing technologies that power coal and gas-fired power plants in Vietnam, Jamaica or Tanzania can ultimately use .

Hydrogen produces water when burned, but most of the fuel used today comes from a process that requires large amounts of fossil fuels. The new federal climate law also provides billions for the generation of hydrogen from CO2-free electricity or systems using CO2 separation.

The rule represents the first real attempt to cut emissions from US power plants since the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Barack Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in 2016, ruling in favor of a coalition of Republican states that provided the legal justification for a key part of the plan in question regulation.

Manager John Jackson walks through the gate of a hydrogen plant in La Porte, Texas on April 13, 2022.
Manager John Jackson walks through the gate of a hydrogen plant in La Porte, Texas on April 13, 2022.

Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images via Getty Images

The Obama EPA interpreted a hotly debated Clean Air Act clause to mean that plant owners could offset emissions from a fossil-fuel power plant at one location by building more renewable energy at another location. The plan should give utilities more opportunities to comply with the rule. Instead, it opened the way for lawsuits from opponents who argued that the 1970 Basic Law limited federal regulators’ powers to only prescribing solutions that could be applied “within the fence line” of an individual power plant.

Before the Obama administration could settle the Supreme Court’s legal issues, Donald Trump won the presidency and appointed Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who led the states’ lawsuit, as the new EPA administrator. The Trump administration promptly repealed the Clean Power Plan entirely.

Though the Republican government dismissed federal scientists’ own warnings about the severity of climate change, a 2007 Supreme Court ruling required the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, meaning Trump wouldn’t simply scrap the regulation could. His EPA had to replace it.

In 2019, the EPA — now under Trump’s second administrator, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler — completed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which focused solely on repairs within power plant fence lines. In fact, however, the ordinance gave power plants an incentive to burn more coal as long as the power plant met modest efficiency improvements.

“After two failed attempts to regulate the energy sector’s massive carbon footprint, the EPA is finally doing the right thing with this proposal.”

– Jay Duffy, Process Manager at the Clean Air Task Force

A formality finally sealed the fate of this regulation. Trump EPA had attempted to solidify its definition of the Clean Air Act’s controversial fence line provision. For these reasons, on Jan. 19, 2021, Trump’s last full day in office, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the ACE rule.

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Shortly thereafter, the Biden administration refused to defend the rule in court, leaving the US without federal climate control for power plants.

While Biden focused his efforts with Democratic control in Congress on passing federal clean energy grants, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Republican case on Trump’s ACE rule. The unusual decision to embark on a regulatory case where the stakes were not really high — the Biden EPA had no plans to implement the ACE rule regardless of the court decision — was widely viewed as an attempt by the Supreme Court’s new conservative supermajority to hindering the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In June 2022, the court ruled that Trump’s setting of the fence line was correct, barring an already unlikely avenue for the EPA to try again to regulate power plant emissions. Rather, energy lawyers warned at the time that the decision would almost force the Biden administration to take a more drastic and unchallengeably legal approach to reducing emissions, effectively banning fossil-fuel plants without carbon capture equipment.

That’s the approach the White House has taken this time. Still, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) said Thursday his state would sue to block the latest regulation.

“Based on what we currently know of this proposal, it will not be sustained and appears to be designed simply to retire more coal plants — the goal of the Biden administration,” Morrisey said.

“This tactic is unacceptable and this rule seems completely contrary to the rule of law. The US Supreme Court has placed significant limits on what the EPA can do – we want to ensure that those limits are met and we expect to prevail again in court against this runaway agency.”

But the Clean Air Task Force, which is typically among the most pragmatic national environmental groups in the US, said the EPA’s legal foundation is on the same firm footing as decades-old regulations mandating scrubbers for the types of power-plant pollutants that once caused widespread acid rain .

“After two failed attempts to regulate the energy sector’s enormous carbon footprint, the EPA finally got it right with this proposal,” Jay Duffy, the nonprofit’s litigator, said in a statement. “Relying on its traditional power under the Clean Air Act to subdivide the electric fleet and set strict emission limits based on traditional controls such as efficiency, fuels and scrubbers, the agency proposed reasonable emission limits for the majority of the fleet based on that cost-effectiveness before pollution control measures.”

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