Environment
10:46 am
Fri September 20, 2013

EPA Releases Proposed Carbon Limits for New Power Plants; Says Won't End Coal Burning

The Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled its rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

The proposed standard sets an emissions limit of 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour for large natural gas plants, and 1100 pounds per megawatt hour for coal and smaller natural gas plants.

The new standard has been in the works for awhile. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases—like carbon dioxide—are pollutants that are harmful to human health, and are therefore subject to regulation. Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed the endangerment finding in 2009. Last year, the agency initially proposed an across-the-board standard that limited all new power plants to 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

That proposal met with intense criticism from industry groups, and the EPA went back to the drawing board. Now the new proposal has separate standards for coal and natural gas plants.

During a speech this morning at the National Press Club, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke about the huge public health issues posed by climate change—everything from poor air quality to an increase in the number of disease-spreading mosquitoes and ticks. She said these rules for new power plants are necessary, and won’t have the dire economic consequences industry groups predict.

“We have proven time after time that setting fair, Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall,” McCarthy said. “The economy does not crumble.”

The Obama Administration is expected to eventually set carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants, too, but the current proposal is just for new plants. McCarthy said it’s important to set limits for these plants now, because once they’re built they’ll be used for decades.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my work implementing the Clean Air Act, it’s been that power plants have really long life spans. Sometimes 60 years or more. Sometimes 70,” she said. “But people are making decisions about how to build new plants today. Which is one reason we need to act today. That’s what makes standards for new power plants so very important.”

The EPA’s announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by environmental groups, but criticized by Kentucky politicians, some energy utilities and the coal industry. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a bill to block the EPA’s carbon regulations, and sent out a statement this morning:

“The President's decision today is an escalation of the War on Coal and what that really means for Kentucky families is an escalation of his War on Jobs and the Kentucky economy,” McConnell said. “This is another attempt by the President to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation’s coal mines.”

McCarthy addressed coal directly in her speech, saying the administration has no interest in shutting down the coal industry. Instead, she said the industry should embrace the regulations as an assurance that coal will continue to be used to provide some of the nation’s electricity.

“I think the coal industry and those investors have known that there needs to be a certain pathway forward for coal to be successful now and into the future. I believe this proposal, rather than killing future coal actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of the diverse mix in this country,” she said. “Look, we know that coal is going to be part of the energy generation that we rely on substantially over the next few decades. Why wouldn’t we now acknowledge and invest in the kind of technology that will allow coal a future long beyond that?”

The average coal-fired power plant today emits about 1800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour….to get down to the new 1100 pound standard, technology like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will have to be deployed. McCarthy mentioned CCS in her speech, calling it “feasible and available today.”

It’s true that CCS has been proven to work, and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide power plants emit. But it’s still really expensive. American Electric Power built a small-scale system at a plant in West Virginia, but eventually abandoned the project when the company couldn’t get approval from state regulators to install a larger version, because it would increase electricity costs.

As Rodney Andrews of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research told me earlier this year:

“We’ve got technologies to allow coal-fired power plants to be as clean as they need to be,” Andrews said. “But it will raise the rates of electricity. And so what pain threshold are we willing to accept there?”

Andrews says this could make it so expensive to burn coal that no one will want to do it anymore. This could lead to more use of natural gas and other alternatives. But either way, Andrews says electric rates will rise, which will affect Kentucky manufacturers and ratepayers.

For her part, McCarthy predicted that a firm carbon emissions standard looming in the future would help spur development of carbon capture and sequestration, which would eventually become more affordable.

“The standards set the stage for continued public and private investment in technologies that are so important. Technologies like carbon capture and sequestration,” she said. “With these investments, technologies will eventually mature and become as common for new power plants as scrubbers have become for well-controlled existing plants today.”

The EPA’s new proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days after it’s published in the federal register. The agency will also hold a public hearing.