The EPA tightens pollution standards for power plants, with a big loophole for coal and gas

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules for power plants today that are supposed to clean up pollution. But instead of encouraging more renewable energy growth, the proposal would actually help keep polluting coal and gas plants online.

The proposed mandate requires existing power plants to start limiting their carbon dioxide emissions in 2030, introducing restrictions that would become more stringent over time. Any new gas power plants would have to comply with pollution caps as soon as they’re built. A fact sheet from the agency says it decided not to update rules for new coal plants since it doesn’t anticipate new coal facilities to come online, which are more expensive and polluting than gas plants.

The proposed rules don’t take the most effective route: pushing utilities to quickly retire coal and gas plants in favor of renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Instead, they push existing plants to adopt systems that rely heavily on controversial technology to capture CO2 emissions. That risks prolonging the US’s dependence on fossil fuels and saddling Americans with all the other pollution that power plants generate.

Instead of encouraging more renewable energy growth, the proposal would actually help keep polluting coal and gas plants online

Carbon capture technologies scrub a portion of CO2 out of smokestack emissions. So they can help coal and gas-fired plants meet the EPA’s new caps on greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do so. On a press call yesterday, EPA administrator Michael Regan said the rules would “require ambitious reductions in carbon pollution based on proven and cost-effective control technologies.”

But the strategy fails to tackle all the pollution that comes from running the power grid on fossil fuels. The devices might be able to capture up to 90 percent of a plant’s CO2 emissions, but they leave other sources of pollution unaddressed. For instance, gas infrastructure — from wells to pipelines and appliances — routinely leaks methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Taking these kinds of supply chain emissions into account, Stanford research found that carbon capture tech might only clean up roughly 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions a power plant is responsible for over 20 years. Neighborhoods near power plants are also saddled with particulate matter and other air pollutants, a problem disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Nevertheless, the EPA believes its plan will slash 617 million metric tons of CO2 through 2042, equivalent to axing annual emissions from half the cars on the road in the United States. It also claims that the net climate and health benefits from its proposed emissions rule could reach $64 to $85 billion between 2024 and 2042.

The EPA’s new policy is sure to face legal challenges. The Obama administration proposed its own plan to clean up greenhouse gas emissions from power plants back in 2015 that got tied up in courts before the Trump administration replaced it with its own, weaker rule. A federal court subsequently blocked implementation of the Trump administration’s rule, which the Biden administration is now attempting to repeal and replace with the proposal laid out today.

To make things even dicier for the Biden administration, the Supreme Court recently gutted a major policy tool that could limit the EPA’s authority over power plant operations. Its decision on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency last June essentially said that the agency can try to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but not in a way that determines what sources of energy the US uses. That decision made it more likely that the EPA would have to lean into carbon capture in its strategy.

Even before this ruling, the Biden administration was eager to give carbon capture technologies a boost. The Inflation Reduction Act increases tax credits for carbon capture by 70 percent, which could make it more financially feasible for utilities. But it’s hard to predict whether power plants will be able to afford carbon capture technologies — and whether power companies will pass those costs on to consumers.

So far, only one power plant has been paired with carbon capture in the US, and it could only afford to stay online for a few years before suspending operations in 2020. The US Department of Energy (DOE) burned through $684 million on that carbon capture project and five similar plans for coal plants that never got off the ground primarily because of “factors affecting their economic viability,” according to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Deploying expensive carbon capture devices could saddle consumers with higher electricity bills, according to research published earlier this year based on data from Australia. The cost of electricity from power plants outfitted with carbon capture devices is at least 1.5 to 2 times more expensive than solar, wind, or traditional gas and coal, according to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

As part of the Paris climate agreement, the Biden administration has pledged to cut the US’s greenhouse gas emissions in half from peak levels by 2030. The power sector accounts for a quarter of that pollution, but it’s unclear how much the EPA’s plan can help meet that deadline since mandates for existing power plants wouldn’t be enforced until 2030. Fossil fuel emissions to date have already triggered more extreme storms, droughts, heatwaves, and other climate-related disasters.

Cleaning up the electricity grid is also crucial for getting rid of pollution from transportation. Last month, the EPA announced ambitious new standards for tailpipe emissions, aiming to make more than two-thirds of car sales electric by 2032. But Biden’s policies could let the grid powering those electric cars keep polluting, undercutting his overall climate goals.

The EPA’s proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days after it’s posted in the Federal Register today.

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