New Standards Proposed for Carbon Pollution from New Power Plants

On Friday September 20, 2013, the EPA released a new set of standards regarding carbon emissions from newly constructed power plants. Power plants account for about 40 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions, the largest portion of our nation’s carbon footprint. The standards state that no new large natural gas-fired plant may exceed emissions of 1000 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour, no new small natural gas-fired plant may exceed 1100 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour, and no new coal-fired plant may exceed 1100 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. New coal-fired plants would also have the option to average their emissions across multiple years, for the purpose of flexibility.

Opposition to the new standards remains high from the coal industry, which views the implementation of technologies required to meet these standards as too costly. To bring a modern coal plant’s average emissions down to meet the new limit would require the installation of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which traps CO2 from the unit and sequesters it below the surface of the earth. Industry opponents of the rulemaking cite CCS technology’s cost as a barrier to meeting the new standards.  It is highly unlikely that CCS would ever be economical. This is a good thing since even if CCS technology could be implemented, we would still be burdened with the negative impacts of mountain top removal coal mining and impoundments of waste left over from burning coal. That is why Green America has called out CCS technology as a red herring that distracts people away from the fact that coal can never be “clean”.

On the surface, it seems as though the proposed standards will effectively prevent new coal-fired plants from being financed and constructed. The coal industry argues that this could mean short-term struggle for thousands of workers and their families. However, the proposed standards have taken into account the potential long-term costs of continuing to burn coal at its current rate. Global climate change caused by the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is predicted to lead to increased ozone pollution, higher average global temperatures, rising sea levels, and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. These effects of climate change can lead to enormous costs to public health, agriculture, and infrastructure in coastal regions. The long-term costs, predicts the EPA, far outweigh the short-term expenses to the coal industry, especially considering the fact that nation-wide, only one coal-fired plant is currently in the planning phase before construction. Although not part of the EPA’s calculations, if we are not building new coal plants to meet our energy needs, we will be increasing spending on energy efficiency and clean energy programs – both of which create high-paying jobs that are safer than those in the coal industry. Increased investment in these areas will also almost certainly lead to long-term savings in public health expenses.

These new standards make a minimal splash in practice, as current economic trends indicate that the cost of constructing a new coal-fired plant is not nearly as feasible as the cost of constructing a new natural gas – fired plant, and even a number of clean energy technologies. The EPA’s analysis is focused on carbon emissions from power plants (not the complete life cycle of the fuel going into the plant). Gas-fired units produce much less CO2 than coal-fired units, and are able to meet the proposed standards without the addition of control technology like CCS. Based on this fact, EPA analysis reveals that unless economic conditions shift drastically, making coal-fired plants the feasible choice again, private investors will turn to technologies that are already able to meet the standards without additional technology.

However, the turn to natural gas is itself a problem. While natural gas produces fewer emissions than coal fired power when burned, drilling for natural gas releases the potent greenhouse gas methane.  Fracking, the method of extracting natural gas from the earth, pollutes the groundwater of surrounding communities with a long list of chemicals. The fluids used in the fracking process can even lubricate fault lines, contributing to earthquakes. The new EPA regulations do not account for these factors of natural gas -powered energy, and natural gas producers are not forced to pay for the negative impacts of their drilling.  That’s why Green America supports a level playing field for green energy technologies – such as wind and solar.  Even without equal support from the federal government, wind and solar power are two of the fastest growing energy technologies in the US.  If the federal government forced all energy producers to factor their environmental impacts into their costs, clean energy technologies would account for a much larger portion of our energy portfolio already.

Overall, Green America applauds the direction of the EPA’s proposed rules regarding new power plants. The potential savings in public health and infrastructure costs from mitigating CO2 emissions far outweigh the revenues to be gained through the construction of new coal-fired plants with no restrictions placed on emissions. Limiting the amount of CO2 poured into the atmosphere by power plants is an important step for our nation to take. The standards will emphasize existing sources of power with emissions rates inherently lower than coal, and create an incentive for the further development of green energy technologies for our nation’s grid. It’s important to note that these proposed rules will only apply to power plants that have not yet been built. The EPA plans to unveil its proposed standards for existing power plants in the near future, which stand to face much greater opposition than last Friday’s.  If those standards are implemented, and we level the playing field for clean energy technologies, we will see a truly green energy future for the US emerge.

For more information on the proposed standards regarding new power plants, click here

To write a comment to the EPA, click here

This posting was written by Green America Climate Program Intern Sam Catherman.


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