WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is proposing new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas power plants, its most ambitious effort yet to cut planet-warming pollution from the nation’s second-biggest contributor to climate change.
A rule to be unveiled Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency could force power plants to capture stack emissions using a technology that has long been promised but is not in widespread use in the US.
If finalized, the proposed regulation would mark the first time the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, which generate about 25% of US greenhouse gas pollution, second only to by the transport sector. The rule would also apply to future power plants and prevent up to 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2042, equivalent to annual emissions from 137 million passenger vehicles, the EPA said.
Nearly all coal-fired plants, along with frequently used large gas-fired power plants, would have to reduce or capture nearly all of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2038, the EPA said. Plants that cannot meet the new standards will be forced to withdraw.
The plan is likely to be challenged by industry groups and Republican-leaning states, which have accused the Democratic administration of overreaching environmental regulations and warn of a pending reliability crisis for the power grid. The power plant rule is one of at least half a dozen EPA rules that limit emissions from power plant and wastewater treatment.
“It’s really an avalanche” of government regulation “designed to prematurely shut down the coal fleet,” Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said in an interview before the rule was announced.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan denied that the power plant rule, or any other regulation, was aimed at shutting down the coal fleet despite acknowledging: “We’ll see some coal withdrawals”.
Coal provides about 20% of US electricity, up from 45% in 2010. Natural gas provides about 40% of US electricity. The rest comes from nuclear power and renewable energy. renewables, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric.
“EPA is fulfilling its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens the health and well-being of people,” Regan said, adding that the proposal “builds on proven and readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution” and is builds on industry practices already in place to move toward clean energy.
Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents US investor-owned electric companies, said the group will assess whether the EPA’s proposal aligns with its commitment to providing clean, reliable power.
Carbon emissions from the US power sector are at the same level as they were in 1984, while electricity use has increased 73% since then, Kuhn said.
The EPA rule would not require the use of equipment to capture and store carbon emissions, a technology that is expensive and still being developed, but would instead set limits on carbon dioxide pollution that plant operators would have to adhere to. Some natural gas plants could start blending gas with another fuel source like hydrogen, which is carbon-neutral, though specific actions would be left to the industry.
Still, the regulation is expected to lead to increased use of carbon capture equipment, a technology the EPA says has been “adequately demonstrated” to control pollution.
Jay Duffy, an attorney with the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, said the EPA rule is likely to “drive the deployment of carbon capture technology” well beyond current use. “It’s a way for (fossil fuel) plants to operate in a decarbonized world,” he said before the rule was announced.
“The industry over-innovates and over-complies,” Duffy said, citing an EPA rule from the 1970s that required power plants to use sulfur dioxide scrubbers. At that time, there were only three commercial scrubber units operating in US power plants, and only one supplier. some years, there were 119 installed sulfur scrubbers and 13 suppliers, Duffy said in an essay posted on the group’s website.
Most recently, the US electric industry exceeded emissions targets set by the Obama administration in its Clean Power Plan, despite the plan being blocked by courts and never implemented.
Still, the scope of the power plant rule is immense. 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 plants, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“These rules are a big deal,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director for climate and clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The power plant rules are crucial to meeting President Joe Biden’s goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and decarbonizing 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 Biden administration announced strict new tailpipe pollution limits that would require up to two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the US to be electric by 2032 and months after Biden announced rules to stop methane leaks from oil and gas wells.
The rules follow climate action from the 2021 infrastructure law and billions of dollars in tax credits and other incentives from the Cut Inflation Act, passed last year.
While Biden has made fighting global warming a top priority, he has faced strong criticism from environmentalists, particularly young climate activists, over a 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 per day in Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope. Environmental groups call Willow a “carbon bomb” and have mounted a #StopWillow social media campaign.
The new plan comes 14 years after the EPA declared that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health. President Barack Obama tried to set limits on carbon pollution from US power plants, but his 2015 Clean Power Plan was blocked by the Supreme Court and later reversed by President Donald Trump.
Last year, the Supreme Court limited how the Clean Air Act can be used to reduce climate-altering emissions from power plants. The 6-3 ruling upheld the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, but said it could not force a national transition away from using coal to generate electricity.
The EPA said its new rule will give plant operators the flexibility to comply with the new standards in a method of their choosing. And instead of creating a cap that all power plants must meet, the agency said it will set a series of targets based on the size of the plant, how often it’s used and whether it’s already scheduled to be retired.
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