EPA Limits Carbon Emissions from New Power Plants

March 27, 2012
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

This blogpost will provide ongoing coverage and analysis of today’s release of EPA’s power plant carbon standard for new power plants, which for the first time places a limit on global warming emissions from these plants.

Update, 1:30pm

One potentially troubling aspect of the power plant carbon standard that EPA is soliciting comments on is the so-called “30-year Averaging Compliance Option” (see the bottom of page 73 of the proposed rule)

What this provision means is that plants that intend to employ carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for their CO2 emissions would be able to comply with the standard as long as the weighted average of the CO2 emissions rate from their facility over the 30-year time period is equivalent to the proposed standard of performance of 1,000 lb CO2/MWh.

EPA has suggested that coal plants could, for example, operate as usual, with a high emissions rate (~1,800lb CO2/MWh) for, say, 10 years and only then be required to reduce their emissions via CCS (to no more than 600 lb CO2/MWh) for the remaining 20 years.

Given the fact that the build-up of global warming emissions in the atmosphere is already so high and the risks of reaching climate tipping points is likely growing, it seems prudent to take action to lower emissions as soon as possible. Also, once the emissions are released into the atmosphere in the early years, what if CCS technology doesn’t deliver as promised in the later years? CCS for power plant carbon emissions is not yet a commercially available technology so this seems like an unduly risky approach to limiting these emissions. It would much more appropriate to only allow CCS if it is installed and operational when a plant goes on line.

Update, 11:44 a.m.

EPA has now issued a press release on the power plant carbon standard for new plants. The full rule and supporting material are also available.

Original Post

Big news: This morning the EPA is set to release much-anticipated standards to limit carbon emissions from new power plants! News reports late last night and this morning indicated that the proposed standard would be set at 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt-hour of electricity (lbs CO2/MWh). Plants that are already permitted and will begin construction within a year will be exempt from the rule.

(I will post an update once the proposed standard is public and we can independently confirm all the details so stay tuned…)

For comparison, a new natural gas combined cycle plant produces emissions of approximately 800 lbs CO2/MWh and a new super-critical pulverized coal plant has emissions of around 1773 lbs CO2/MWh. This means the standard would help begin a much-needed transition away from conventional coal-fired power to cleaner sources of electricity.

After a disappointing series of delays, this is excellent news! As UCS President, Kevin Knobloch said, “The administration is taking prudent action to address the dangers of unchecked climate change that an overwhelming majority of scientists have been warning us about for years.”

The standards to be released today do not address emissions from existing power plants, which are responsible for almost 40 percent of U.S. emissions. This must be a top priority if these standards are to take a real bite out of emissions. We do expect that shortly the EPA will announce guidelines for emission limits for these plants. The agency will be soliciting input from the states, which will ultimately have authority over implementing the standards for existing plants, before issuing a proposed rule for these plants.

Regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act

This latest EPA action builds on the momentum from the Administration’s recent standards to reduce harmful carbon emissions from cars and light trucks. It’s also a modest but critical step along the journey to comply with a now five-year-old Supreme Court ruling. In 2007, the Court mandated that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set standards to reduce global warming emissions if the agency found them to be harmful. In December 2009, the EPA concluded that a vast body of scientific evidence showed that such emissions do indeed harm our health and welfare. This finding, together with the court ruling, establishes EPA’s obligation and authority to issue clean air act standards for major sources of carbon pollution including vehicles and power plants.

Modernizing our Power Plant Fleet

In the wake of today’s announcement, we can expect to hear the usual exaggerated claims of gloom and doom by fossil fuel interests. A recent UCS report, EPA Power Plant Standards: A Powerful Catalyst for Modernizing our Electric System, debunks many of these claims and describes why coal-fired power is becoming uneconomic for a variety of reasons – including competition from cleaner, low cost alternatives like natural gas, renewable energy and efficiency, and the need to finally address its harmful emissions. Today’s rule provides further impetus to changes that are already underway and will provide power plant owners and investors the certainty they need to make long-lived investments in power infrastructure. Instead of clinging to an outdated, dirty power system, we can use this opportunity to begin a transition to a healthier, more sustainable one.

Addressing the Risks of Climate Change

Reducing emissions from the power sector is critical to our overall effort to limit climate change. The threats posed by unchecked climate change have been clearly articulated by numerous national and international scientific organizations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. These include a greater risk of serious economic, public health and environmental consequences such as sea level rise, extreme weather events, asthma exacerbation and heat stress, a strain on water resources and the loss or degradation of vital ecosystems.

EPA’s carbon standards can help get us get started but ultimately stronger action will be required to achieve the full scale of deep reductions needed (at least an 80 percent reduction in emissions by mid-century) to help avoid some of the worst impacts.

Finalizing the power plant carbon rules

We expect that the standard for new plants will be finalized by this fall. It’s much more unclear when we can expect the rule for existing plants to be issued and finalized. Election-year politics could well mean that we’ll have to wait until next year for further action. But our policymakers must be reminded that climate change will not wait on narrow political considerations.

Once this standard is published in the federal register, EPA will open a 30-90 day comment period. Please do weigh in with your support for this rule!