Existing power plants generate about 25% of US greenhouse gas pollution, second only to the transportation sector.
WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Biden administration proposed new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants. It is the most ambitious attempt to reduce global warming from the country’s second largest contributor to climate change.
A rule published by the Environmental Protection Agency could force power plants to capture smokestack emissions with a technology that has long been promised but not widely used in the U.S.
“This administration is committed to meeting the urgency of the climate crisis and taking the necessary action,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during Thursday’s announcement.
The new rule “will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, protecting health and protecting our planet,” Regan said. The plan will not only “improve air quality across the country, but it will have significant health benefits for communities across the country, especially our frontline communities … that have unfairly borne the burden of pollution for decades,” Regan said in a speech at the University of Maryland.
If finalized, the proposed regulation would limit the federal government for the first time carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, which generate about 25% of US greenhouse gas pollution, second only to the transportation sector. The rule would also apply to future power plants and avoid emissions of up to 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2042, equivalent to the annual emissions of 137 million passenger cars, the EPA said.
Nearly all coal-fired power plants — along with large, heavily used gas-fired power plants — will have to reduce or capture nearly all of their carbon emissions by 2038, the EPA said. Factories that do not meet the new standards will be forced out of business.
The plan is likely to be challenged by industry groups and Republican states, which have accused the Democratic administration of overreaching environmental regulations and warn of a looming crisis in the reliability of the electric grid. The power plant rule is one of at least half a dozen EPA rules that limit power plant emissions and wastewater treatment.
Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Association of Mining Industries, said in an interview before the rule was announced that “this is really an onslaught” of government regulation “designed to prematurely kill the coal fleet.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Regan denied that the power plant rule — or any other regulation — was aimed at closing the coal fleet, though he acknowledged, “We’re going to see some retirements from coal.”
The proposal “builds on proven, affordable technologies to limit carbon pollution” and builds on industry practices already underway to transition to clean energy, he said.
Coal provides about 20% of US electricity, up from about 45% in 2010. Natural gas provides about 40% of the electricity in the US. The rest comes from nuclear power and renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower.
Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. investor-owned electric companies, said the group will assess whether the EPA’s proposal is consistent with its commitment to providing reliable and clean energy.
Carbon emissions in the U.S. energy sector are at the same level as they were in 1984, while electricity use has grown 73% since then, Kuhn said.
The EPA rule does not mandate the use of carbon capture and storage equipment — a technology that is expensive and still being developed — but instead sets carbon pollution limits that plant operators must meet. Some natural gas-fired plants may begin blending the gas with another fuel source, such as carbon-neutral hydrogen, though specific actions will be left up to the industry.
However, the regulation is expected to lead to greater use of carbon capture equipment, a technology that the EPA says has been “adequately demonstrated” to control pollution.
Jay Duffy, a lawyer for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, said the EPA rule would likely “push the deployment of carbon capture technology” well beyond current use. “This is a way for (fossil fuel) plants to operate in a decarbonized world,” he said before announcing the rule.
“The industry is innovating and over-compliant,” Duffy said, referring to a 1970s EPA rule that required power plants to use sulfur dioxide scrubbers. At the time, only three commercial scrubbers and only one supplier were operating at U.S. power plants. Over the years, 119 desulfurizers and 13 suppliers have been installed, Duffy said in an essay posted on the group’s website.
Most recently, the U.S. energy industry exceeded emissions targets set by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, even though the plan was blocked by the courts and never implemented.
However, the scope of the power plant rule is vast. About 60% of the electricity generated in the US last year came from burning fossil fuels at the country’s 3,400 coal and gas-fired power plants, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“These rules are very important,” said David Doniger, senior director of climate and clean energy strategy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Power plant regulations are critical to President Joe Biden’s goals cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid by 2035, he and other advocates said.
“We need to do this to deal with the climate crisis,” Doniger said.
The proposal comes weeks after the announcement of the Biden administration strict new tailpipe pollution limits that would require up to 2/3 of new cars sold in the US to be electric by 2032 and months after Biden announced the rules stop methane leaking from oil and gas wells.
The rules follow climate action Infrastructure Act of 2021 and billions of dollars in tax credits and other incentives from Law on reducing inflationapproved last year.
While Biden has made the fight against global warming a top priority, he has faced sharp criticism from environmentalists — especially young climate activists — for his recent decision to approve the controversial Willow oil project in Alaska. Oil giant ConocoPhillips’ massive drilling plan could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope. Environmental groups call Willow a “carbon bomb” and have organized a #StopWillow campaign on social media.
The new plan comes 14 years after the EPA said carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases threaten the health of the population. President Barack Obama tried to impose limits on carbon pollution from US power plants, but in 2015 The Clean Power Plan was blocked by the Supreme Court and was later rescinded by President Donald Trump.
Last year, the Supreme Court limited way to use the Clean Air Act to reduce climate-changing emissions from power plants. The 6-3 ruling affirmed the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, but said it could not force a nationwide transition away from using coal to generate electricity.
The EPA said its new rule would give plant operators the flexibility to comply with the new standards by the method of their choice. And instead of creating a single limit that all power plants must meet, the agency said it would set a range of targets based on the size of the plant, how often it is used and whether it is scheduled for retirement.