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Coal and new gas power plants will have to meet climate pollution targets

The Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence, Pa., is among the nation's coal-fired power plants that face tough new regulations to limit planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Gene J. Puskar
The Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence, Pa., is among the nation's coal-fired power plants that face tough new regulations to limit planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized rules on Thursday to limit the pollution from power plants that drives climate change.

Power plants are the second biggest source of planet-heating greenhouse gasses behind transportation, according to the EPA. Under the regulations, existing coal and new natural gas-fired power plants that run more than 40% of the time would have to eliminate 90% of their carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of global warming. (Some power plants don't run continuously and are brought online when electricity demand is high.)

Existing coal power plants would have to meet that standard by 2032 if they plan to operate after 2039. The EPA is delaying a similar rule for existing natural gas-fired power plants, likely until after the November election, say environmentalists.

"EPA is finalizing four separate rules that reduce pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants, protect communities from pollution and improve public health," said Michael Regan, EPA administrator, in a call with reporters.

In addition to the climate regulation, the agency issued rules to limit water pollution from coal plants, strengthen regulations on coal ash and limit mercury and other toxins from burning coal for electricity.

Environmentalists and industry react

The EPA labeled carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses a danger to public health and welfare 15 years ago. But legal challenges from fossil fuel interests and their allies delayed the finalization of rules to limit climate-warming gasses from the power sector.

Environmental groups generally welcomed the final rules.

"This is a big deal. This ends the age of unlimited carbon emissions from power plants," says Manish Bapna, president and chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bapna predicts the new power plant rules will also "drive up investment, innovation, and good jobs in the clean energy economy of the future" and give industry the certainty it "needs to meet growing demand in the cleanest, cheapest, most reliable way possible."

But within that utility industry, there's less optimism and more warnings about the reliability of the U.S. power grid.

"The path outlined by the EPA today is unlawful, unrealistic and unachievable," wrote Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in a statement. The group's members get 63% of their electricity from burning fossil fuels.

Matheson argues the rules overstep EPA's authority, rely on technologies that are not ready to deploy and don't give existing coal and new gas power plants enough time to comply.

Environmental groups say that despite the industry's concerns, experience shows that the power sector is good at meeting new targets and maintaining a reliable grid.

"Every time EPA tightens pollution standards for various industry sectors, but definitely the power sector industry says the sky is going to fall and this is too expensive and we're not going to be able to keep the lights on," says Gudrun Thompson, senior attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center. "And then it just doesn't end up happening."

The EPA included temporary exemptions in the new rule so that in an emergency, power plant operators can produce electricity for the grid without having to comply with the regulations.

Some of the EPA's justification for the rules rely on projections about how fast new technologies to reduce pollution develop, notably carbon capture and storage (CCS) on power plant smokestacks. CCS captures carbon dioxide to keep it out of the atmosphere and stores it, usually underground. That technology isn't fully proven, and it comes with controversies, such as building more pipelines through communities.

Still Ceres, a nonprofit group focused on market-based solutions to environmental problems, analyzed the EPA's nearly 50-year record of making such projections and found the agency has "a strong track record." The report finds new regulations end up driving innovation and cost-cutting.

The costs and benefits

The EPA's new rules aim to get the country closer to the Biden administration's climate goal of eliminating the country's greenhouse gasses by 2050. Other recent initiatives include rules that will require more cars to be electric, tighter energy efficiency standards for appliances and switching buildings from gas to electric.

If these power plant rules survive an expected legal challenge, they'll create extra costs for utilities and plant owners to install pollution controls. But the EPA finds those costs would largely be offset by government financial incentives and because technology tends to get cheaper over time.

And the projected climate and public health benefits far outweigh costs, the EPA says. The agency estimates the U.S. will save $370 billion over the next two decades. That includes up to 1.38 billion metric tons of avoided carbon pollution through 2047 – the equivalent to the annual emissions of 328 million gasoline cars.

Reducing climate pollution also eliminates other air pollution, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The EPA estimates that in 2035 that will prevent 1,200 premature deaths, 360,000 cases of asthma attacks, avoid 48,000 school absences and 57,000 lost workdays.

Climate rules shaped by court battles

The legal basis for these new rules started with the Supreme Court's landmark 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision. It concluded that the EPA is required to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

In 2014 the Obama administration proposed its "Clean Power Plan" aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32%, from 2005 levels, by 2030. That plan faced legal challenges and never went into effect. Still the country met that goal well before 2030, as coal-fired power plants were replaced by natural gas plants that emit less climate pollution.

In 2019 former President Trump replacedthe Obama-era Clean Power Plan with his much weaker Affordable Clean Energy rule. But then he lost the 2020 election to President Biden, who came into office with the most ambitious plan to address climate change of any major party candidate in U.S. history.

The Biden administration set a goal of eliminating climate pollution from the power sector by 2035. Scientists say that's what's needed to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Global average temperatures have already risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius.

In 2022, the Supreme Court weighed in again and restricted the EPA's options for regulating power plant emissions. Justices said that without a specific law, the agency cannot force the entire power generation industry to move away from fossil fuels toward less-polluting energy sources.

So, instead, the EPA has created regulations governing individual power plants. The agency and environmental groups believe that will allow the rules to survive scrutiny from a court dominated by conservative justices.

But even if the rules survive a court challenge, a future administration could change it again. That means these regulations likely will be an issue in this year's presidential election campaign.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.