Just a few months after President Barack Obama announced a comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing US greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed what would be the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
In June, Obama laid out his Climate Action Plan, which includes permitting renewable-energy projects on public land, boosting energy-efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings, and working with federal agencies to prepare for sea-level rise and extreme weather events brought on by global warming (see “Taking the Reins,” by Deirdre Fulton, July 12, 2013). Obama also directed the EPA to address the largest source of global-warming pollution in the United States — electricity-generating power plants, which accounted for more than 40 percent of total US carbon dioxide emissions in 2011. Standards are currently in place to regulate mercury, arsenic, and lead pollution from power plants, but there has never been a national rule on carbon.
On September 20, the EPA began to follow through on its end, announcing new rules that would affect future coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants. The new standards are a revision of the ones announced last year, about which the EPA received more than 2.5 million comments. They would necessitate the use of clean energy technology such as emission scrubbers and carbon capture and storage, and establish different standards for different types of plants.
“If there is one thing I have learned over the course of my work in implementing the Clean Air Act, it’s that power plants have long lifespans — sometimes 60 years or more,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said at a press conference announcing the new standards. “But people are making decisions about how to build those plants today — which is one reason why we must act today. That’s what makes standards for new plants so important, and why this proposal takes full advantage of all cutting edge technologies that increase efficiency and reduce waste.”
Under the proposal, the EPA would require that new coal-fired plants emit no more than 1100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, while large natural gas-fired plants would be held to a slightly stricter 1000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. (Coal plants could have some additional flexibility if they want to average their emissions over multiple years while meeting a tighter limit.) Existing coal plants produce an average of 2190 pounds of CO2/MWh, according to a recent report issued by Environment Maine. Even the most modern coal plants that utilize the newest technology available emit an average of 1800 pounds of CO2/MWh, industry officials say.
The standards unveiled last week would only affect power plants that have yet to be built. The EPA has yet to propose standards for existing plants, but has begun conversations with stakeholders such as states and utility companies to come up with flexible and achievable strategies for those facilities. This process is expected to be more controversial, mainly because today’s coal-fired plants are just so damn dirty.
“Reflecting the significant differences between currently operating sources and those not yet built, the standards that will be developed for currently operating sources are expected to be different from, and less stringent than, the standards proposed today for future sources,” according to an EPA statement. The EPA has until June 2014 to come up with a proposal for existing plants.