EPA proposes new carbon pollution standards for power plants

Published on May 11, 2023 by Dave Kovaleski

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday proposed new carbon pollution standards for coal and natural gas-fired power plants designed to reduce harmful pollutants and deliver up to $85 billion in climate and public health benefits over the next two decades.

The proposed guidelines are consistent with the EPA’s traditional approach to establishing pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. In summary, the proposal for coal and new natural gas power plants would avoid up to 617 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide (CO2) through 2042. This is the equivalent of reducing the annual emissions of 137 million cars. Further, it would cut tens of thousands of tons of particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide – air pollutants that are known to have harmful health effects.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, “EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future. Alongside historic investment taking place across America in clean energy manufacturing and deployment, these proposals will help deliver tremendous benefits to the American people—cutting climate pollution and other harmful pollutants, protecting people’s health, and driving American innovation.”

Specifically, the standards include strengthening the current New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for newly built fossil fuel-fired stationary combustion turbines (generally natural gas-fired); establishing emission guidelines for states to follow in limiting carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel-fired steam generating EGUs (including coal, oil and natural gas-fired units); and establishing emission guidelines for large, frequently used existing fossil fuel-fired stationary combustion turbines (generally natural gas-fired).

EPA is projecting the proposed standards for existing gas-fired plants and the third phase of the NSPS could achieve up to 407 million metric tons of CO2 emission reductions.

The reductions in carbon pollution are based on proven and cost-effective control technologies that can be applied directly to power plants, EPA officials said. In addition, the new standards provide power plant owners and operators with ample lead time and substantial compliance flexibilities. EPA added that the standards could be implemented with a negligible impact on electricity prices and within the range of historical fluctuations.

Since 2005, the power sector has reduced carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent while continuing to keep pace with growing energy demand and this proposal seeks to build on that success.

The EPA will take comments for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register and will hold a virtual public hearing in the near future.

Several leading power sector organizations issued comments on the proposal, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which said the proposal would strain the electric grid, compromise reliability, disrupt domestic energy security, and make new natural gas plants difficult to permit, site, and build.

“Nine states experienced rolling blackouts last December as the demand for electricity exceeded the available supply. Those situations will become even more frequent if EPA continues to craft rules without any apparent consideration of impacts on electric grid reliability. American families and businesses rightfully expect the lights to stay on at a price they can afford. EPA needs to recognize the impact this proposal will have on the future of reliable energy before it’s too late,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said.

Meanwhile, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) said it will assess the proposed regulations through the lens of whether they align with its priorities and provide customers with reliable clean energy at an affordable cost.

“Over the past 18 months, we have engaged constructively with EPA and outlined several important priorities that are consistent with the ongoing clean energy transition that our member companies are leading,” EEI President Tom Kuhn said. “We focused our engagement on three key areas: 1) Alignment of compliance deadlines with existing transition plans. 2) Recognition of the critical role existing and new natural gas generation plays—and will continue to play—in integrating more renewable energy and maintaining reliability. 3) Inclusion of a range of compliance flexibilities and the industry’s commitment to developing and deploying critical clean energy technologies, including hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, when they are commercially available at scale and cost.”

In addition, Electric Power Supply Association President and CEO Todd Snitchler said the proposal puts aspirational policy ahead of operational reality.

“If finalized, these aggressive rules will undoubtedly drive up energy costs and lead to a substantial number of power plant retirements when experts have warned that we are already facing a reliability crisis due to accelerated retirements of dispatchable resources. Efforts to reduce emissions and deploy zero-emitting technology must be coupled with an understanding of how a rule like this will impact reliability,” Snitchler said.

However, Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, called it an important step forward, in light of the warnings about the impacts of climate change.

“It is clear that we need a regulatory framework for reducing carbon emissions to complement the helpful incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act if we are to achieve our climate targets. We applaud EPA Administrator Michael Regan for this strong, comprehensive approach,” Wetstone said.