U.S. EPA Puts First Greenhouse Gas Limits on New Power Plants

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2012 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today proposed the nation’s first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. Under the standard, greenhouse gas emissions of new coal-fired power plants would be reduced by about 50 percent over the life of the plants.

The rulemaking proposed today only concerns new generating units that will be built in the future, and does not apply to existing units already operating or units that will start construction over the next 12 months.

The Keystone power plant in Pennsylvania burns bituminous coal. (Photo by Doug Jackson)

The proposed standard follows a 2007 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Mass. vs EPA that greenhouse gases are air pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Greenhouse gas emissions pollute the atmosphere by adding heat-trapping gases that are raising the average temperature of the Earth, most scientists around the world agree. Since 2001, 32 national science academies, including that of the United States, have issued declarations confirming global warming caused by human activities, and urging the nations of the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Currently, there is no uniform U.S. national limit on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. As a direct result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, EPA in 2009 determined that greenhouse gas pollution endangers Americans’ health and welfare by leading to long lasting changes in the climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.

“Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies – and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow.”

“We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids,” Jackson said.

EPA’s proposed standard reflects the current trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies, including new, clean-burning, efficient natural gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants.

The rule creates a path forward for new technologies to be deployed at future facilities that will allow companies to burn coal, while emitting less carbon pollution, said Jackson.

This Montana power plant burns lignite coal and natural gas. (Photo by Society for Industrial Archeology)

“Even without today’s action, the power plants that are currently projected to be built going forward would already comply with the standard,” the EPA said in a statement announcing the proposed standard. As a result, the agency does not project additional cost for industry to comply with this standard.

However, the National Association of Manufacturers says the proposed standard will “drive up energy prices” and “more costly regulations is not the answer.”

NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said, “This latest proposed regulation would limit the construction of new coal fuel power plants, taking a stable and affordable source of energy off the table and putting the power grid at further risk. The impact will be higher electricity prices on manufacturers and consumers…”

The EPA was compelled to propose this standard for greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants not only by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but also by a settlement agreement with a coalition of states led by New York reached in March 2011.

“Addressing the threat posed by climate change is one of the most important challenges of our time – one that demands attention, leadership and action at all levels of government and by the private sector. I commend EPA for issuing these common-sense and cost-effective regulations that will result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from new fossil fuel power plants,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The settlement of the New York v. EPA litigation requires the agency to finalize greenhouse gas emission standards for new and modified power plants, as well as existing power plants.

The Kintigh coal-fired generating station in Somerset, New York (Photo by Matthew D. Wilson)

“EPA has a continuing legal obligation to take the next step and require existing fossil fuel power plants – the largest producers of global warming pollution – to reduce their emissions,” said the New York attorney general. “The agency’s action today is an important step forward in confronting the public health, environmental and economic dangers posed by climate change, but we must remain vigilant in order to meaningfully reduce its scale and adverse effects on behalf of the people of New York.”

But today, Jackson told reporters on a teleconference that the EPA has “no plans to issue another rule for existing sources of emissions.”

Public health and environmental groups were pleased with the proposed standard, although some said it does not go far enough.

Greenpeace USA called the proposal “welcome, but disappointing.”

Greenpeace climate campaigner Kyle Ash said Administrator Jackson and Gina McCarthy, who heads EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, are “climate heroes for moving forward despite a begrudging White House and a Congress mired by a radical right wing in love with coal and oil.”

“Unfortunately, this standard is riddled with weaknesses, like exemptions for biomass and carbon capture and storage, and it does nothing to drive down current climate pollution,” Ash said.

The proposed standard allows new coal-fired power plants to pollute for 10 years as long as they integrate carbon capture and storage technology and lower emissions enough to bring their annual average pollution down to the limit after 30 years, complains Ash.

“The EPA, in effect, has defined an exemption based on unproven technology that even in theory would sequester carbon while exacerbating other catastrophic coal issues – such as mountaintop removal and generating millions of tons of toxic coal ash,” he said.

In February, GenOn Energy said it will close seven of its coal plants by 2015, including this one at Avon Lake, Ohio, citing impending environmental regulations. (Photo by iofdi)

Albert Rizzo, M.D., who chairs the American Lung Association Board of Directors, said the new standard will improve public health. “Power plant pollution kills and makes people sick,” he said. “Power plants should not be allowed to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. Scientists warn that the buildup of carbon pollution will create warmer temperatures which will increase the risk of unhealthful smog levels. More smog means more childhood asthma attacks and complications for those with lung disease.”

“According to a recent bi-partisan survey conducted for the American Lung Association, the voting public strongly supports the EPA’s efforts to update clean air protections,” said Dr. Rizzo. “An astounding 72 percent of voters surveyed want the EPA to set limits on power plant carbon pollution.”

“We support the EPA’s carbon pollution standards and will encourage the public to weigh in during the comment period. We urge the EPA to set final carbon pollution standards before the end of the year.”

The National Wildlife Federation’s Joe Mendelson, initiator and co-counsel in the 2007 Supreme Court case and NWF climate and energy policy director, said, “This is a milestone in the fight to rein in climate change that seriously threatens people and wildlife. Species extinctions, worsening air quality, and extreme weather are impacting our families, property, and conservation heritage.”

“The Obama Administration is the first White House to turn the tide on carbon pollution,” said Mendelson. “Today’s action is much needed and grounded in sound science. It will draw a groundswell of support in the months ahead.”

Many have already expressed their support. John Arensmeyer, CEO, Small Business Majority, said today, “National opinion polling we released in September found 76 percent of small business owners support the EPA regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. Another 87 percent believe improving innovation and energy efficiency are good ways to increase prosperity for small businesses.”

American Sustainable Business Council, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and Main Street Alliance issued a joint statement, saying, “As representatives of the business community, we understand the importance of certainty and clear market signals and believe a national standard to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants will both clarify risks and opportunities for U.S. businesses, while also leading to technological innovation and investment in the domestic clean energy market.”

Ahead of the proposal, EPA gathered public comments relating to a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. Now, the agency is seeking additional comment and information, including public hearings, and “will take that input fully into account” as it completes the rulemaking process. EPA’s comment period will be open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register. Click here for more information.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.