EPA Finally Announces Greenhouse Gas Standard

After much delay, today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the first-ever national standards to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal plants. The proposal aims to restrict the amount of GHG emissions allowed from new coal plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity produced. As a reference point, the average coal plant today releases 1,800 pounds of CO2 per MWh according to EPA. In the Southeast, where coal plants are especially old and inefficient, the average coal plant released over 2,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh in 2010 (and this was a slow year because of the down economy!).

When compared to the new standard of 1,000 CO2 lbs/ MWh the average CO2 emissions currently allowed are stunning but, most importantly, EPA is not requiring existing coal plants to cut their CO2 emissions. This rule only applies to new coal plants. Although there was hope that EPA was working on a rule for existing coal plants, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said that there are currently “no plans to address existing plants“.

The electric power sector accounts for 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and coal power makes up 81% of CO2 emissions in the electricity sector. Put differently, coal plants are the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, so coal power is clearly fertile territory for CO2 reductions. Every step to reduce climate pollutants from coal power is a positive step and EPA deserves credit for this one. On the other hand, today’s rule is largely symbolic because it does not address existing coal plants. There are only about 20 legitimate new coal plant proposals in the United States today, and only one in the Southeast. Among these proposed plants, the new rule will not apply if the plants are already permitted and begin construction within one year of enactment of the final rule.

There are two examples in the Southeast to help illuminate the nuances of the rule. Plant Washington is a proposed coal plant in Georgia and Cliffside is Duke Energy’s nearly complete new plant in North Carolina. Cliffside has secured its key Clean Air Act permits and construction has not only commenced, but is nearly complete. Today’s proposal, therefore, if finalized, would not, unfortunately, apply to Cliffside. While Plant Washington has secured air permits, they are currently being challenged in court and the start time of construction is largely questionable (in fact, plans for this ill-conceived plant have been falling apart for some time), so it is unclear at this time whether or not this facility would have to comply with the new rules.

According to EPA data there are also over 250 existing coal boilers in the region that pumped nearly 500 million tons of CO2 into the air in 2010. Today’s proposal will have no impact on that pollution. It will also have little impact on future pollution from those facilities. For example, EPA explains that…

“even in the absence of this rule, existing and anticipated economic conditions in the marketplace will lead electricity generators to choose technologies that meet the proposed standard.” That is, the rule will not change behavior. EPA further states that they “anticipate that the proposed [rule] will result in negligible CO2 emissions changes, energy impacts, quantified benefits, costs and economic impacts by 2020.” That is, the rule will not slow climate change or raise electric prices, or do much of anything really.

Indeed, these rules will not have much of an impact on behavior or climate pollution, but they signify a critical shift to the end of the coal era. The age of coal is coming to an end because of market forces, not regulations. What this rule can do is make sure that if market forces change, power companies will not try to revive coal.

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