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“The era of unlimited carbon pollution is over” — EPA proposes first limits on power plant emissions

a power plant spews exhaust against a yellow sky
Image Credit: Chris LeBoutillier // Unsplash

Across the United States, there are over 3,400 fossil fuel-fired power plants spewing greenhouse gases responsible for 25% of our nation’s emissions. Now, with new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulating emissions from power plants, these emissions could be drastically slashed.

Proposed on May 11, the new rules represent the first time in U.S. history that power plants will have emissions limits.

By 2038, almost ​​all coal plants — along with large, frequently used gas-fired power plants — would have to cut or capture nearly all their carbon dioxide emissions the EPA says.

Those who don’t will be forced to retire or commit to doing so by 2040.

“The EPA’s proposed rule sends an unequivocal signal to American power plant operators: the era of unlimited carbon pollution is over,” wrote Dan Lashof, U.S. Director at the World Resources Institute, in a statement responding to the proposal.

That means that by 2042, 617 million metric tons of CO2 pollution will be avoided. That’s like taking 137 million passenger vehicles, or about half of the cars roaming the country, off the road annually, or slashing the amount the UK emits in a year.

According to Lashof, that would be an over 80% reduction in carbon pollution from U.S. 2005 levels.

“This is a day for the history books, as the United States locks into the path toward a prosperous, clean, and equitable future,” Lashof wrote.

On top of emissions reductions, in 2030 alone the new rules could prevent 300,000 asthma attacks and 1,300 premature deaths, per the EPA’s calculations.

“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 wellbeing,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement.

If finalized it would force power companies and grid operators to reduce emissions, likely by using technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and low-GHG hydrogen.

The rules would diminish the country’s second-largest contributor to climate change, while also slashing tens of thousands of tons of particulate matter, and other harmful air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, that endanger people’s health.

“Many power plants in this country are built in low-income or communities of color,” Lena Moffitt, Executive Director of the climate action group Evergreen Action, said in a statement.

“These standards are an integral part of the EPA’s work, through multiple rules, to clean up power sector pollution that has burdened these communities for far too long.”

The proposed regulation comes in two parts. Both operating under the Clean Air Act, the first sets carbon pollution standards for existing fossil fuel power plants, and the second sets standards for new gas plants, which have not yet been built. (There is also a third proposal, officially overturning the “Affordable Clean Energy Rule,” a Trump-era regulation that barred the EPA from regulating power plants.)

While CCS, one of the technologies the rule relies on, is not yet widely used in the U.S., according to Regan and the EPA, the suite of technologies that will be used is “proven,” “readily available,” and “cost-effective,” thanks to subsidies provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.

If passed, the law could likely ramp up the deployment of CCS among other emissions-reducing technologies, further underlining the federal government's view that the technology is vital to meet emissions targets.

Additionally, according to the EPA’s analysis, the changes will come without any negligible changes to the cost of electricity.

“[The proposal] seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future,” Regan said. “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.”

Right now, coal provides about 20% of U.S. electricity, down from the vast majority, 45%, in 2010. Natural gas provides about 40% with the remainder coming from nuclear energy and renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower.

While many environmental groups like Evergreen Action commend the Biden administration for the proposed rules, others point out that CCS reduces emissions, but does not eliminate the use of fossil fuels, the root of the climate problem.

The Sierra Club, for example, applauded it as a “significant step forward,” while acknowledging the shortfall.

“We know the work to confront the climate crisis doesn’t stop at strong carbon pollution standards,” Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous said in a statement.

“The continued use or expansion of fossil power plants is incompatible with a livable future. Simply put, we must not merely limit the use of fossil fuel electricity: we must end it entirely.”

Aside from motivating operators to implement CCS or fuse their fuel with lower-emissions options like hydrogen, the EPA also predicts that many will instead begin long-term investments in renewable energy. Right now, the rule only applies to the nation’s largest plants, but in the next two months, the EPA says it will take comments on those not included.

Additionally, the rule lets states decide how to achieve the new pollution standards with existing power plants. Whether states want to use carbon capture tech or renewables is their choice. If finalized, states will have two years to figure it out.

Despite the ambitions of the law, and flexibility on the state level, it is likely to face opposition from red states. Many of these states' leaders point to the potential shutdown of coal plants and thus jobs, and while Regan confirmed that some will ultimately retire, he said that it's “really a decision that will be made state by state, company by company.”

The EPA’s release of the proposal points to federal resources for energy communities to invest in infrastructure and deploy new technologies to provide greener jobs for former coal workers.

As many reports show — like this recent story on how green steel can help revitalize a community once built on fossil fuel steel — there is money for red states in the energy transition. In many cases, thanks to incentives and funds in the Inflation Reduction Act, red states benefit the most from green jobs.

Still, the EPA hopes that the state-flexibility, a feature not present in the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was ultimately struck down in the Supreme Court, will be leverage for the rule to be passed into law. Plus, the agency believes it complies with last year’s unfortunate West Virginia v. EPA ruling.

According to Lashof, “By only regulating based on what is feasible within power plants' fence line, the EPA avoids some of the legal obstacles erected by the Supreme Court when it rejected the Clean Power Plan.”

“This approach makes it more likely that the rule will survive judicial review,” he said in his statement.

However, Evergreen Action says that the EPA should finalize the rules by March 2024, because if they don’t a future Republican-controlled Congress would likely strike it down.

“Time is of the essence,” the group wrote in a post explaining the proposed rules.

“When it comes to carbon pollution, the IRA made a significant down payment, but we need to go further,” Sam Ricketts, a former adviser to Washington state Governor Jay Inslee and the co-founder and senior advisor for Evergreen said.

“I have confidence in its [the proposed rule’s] durability,” he told CNN. “The EPA has learned the lessons. … I think they’re operating tightly in the bounds of what the Clean Air Act and Supreme Court allow.”

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