The EPA’s new power plant pollution rule has a big, gassy hole in it

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just finalized rules aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But it still doesn’t crack down on the nation’s fleet of gas-fired power plants. That’s a big omission considering the US gets 43 percent of its electricity from gas, more than from any other source of energy.

EPA administrator Michael Regan says the agency is taking more time to strengthen rules for today’s existing gas power plants. But waiting too long risks leaving the decision up to a possible forthcoming Trump administration, which tried to gut environmental protections the last time. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the US to meet climate commitments it set under the Paris agreement. The Biden administration pledged to cut its carbon pollution in half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade under that agreement.

“A piecemeal approach isn’t going to get us there.”

“A piecemeal approach isn’t going to get us there,” writes Marcene Mitchell, World Wildlife Fund senior vice president of climate change, in comments emailed to The Verge. “The Biden administration has a responsibility to set a clear direction for how fossil fuels will be phased out. They have delivered comprehensive action before, and we expect comprehensive action now, not one undermined by loopholes.”

The EPA says it is doing something about existing natural gas plants — that, in fact, it’s “committed to expeditiously proposing GHG emission guidelines for these units,” and plans to propose new rules. But for now, it’s only gathering input for that proposed rule in a “non-regulatory docket,” which the EPA website says are “not related to the development of a rule.” We’ll be speaking to EPA administrator Michael Regan later today about how the process might work.

“What we’re doing with the status of existing natural gas plants is directly in response to … both our industry stakeholders and our environmental stakeholders who said you can do better. And we decided to take that challenge,” Regan said in a press briefing yesterday.

The agency didn’t say how long that process might take, but it could effectively leave the decision up to voters in November. When Donald Trump was in office, his administration rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations. Trump replaced the Obama administration’s proposed power plant pollution rules with his own weaker measures, which a federal court blocked before they could be implemented.

Even now, the EPA’s power plant rules are likely to face challenges in court and from a divided Congress. The agency’s ability to regulate the power sector was already kneecapped by the Supreme Court. It decided in 2022 that the EPA can’t limit greenhouse gas emissions in a way that determines which sources of energy the US uses. In other words, it can’t overtly push utilities to turn to renewables like solar and wind energy. The decision effectively pushed the EPA to rely on controversial carbon capture technologies in any policy to cut power plant emissions.

Under rules the EPA announced today, newly-built gas plants and existing coal plants will need to eventually “control 90 percent of their carbon pollution.” In this case, control really means capturing CO2 emissions using technologies that scrub the greenhouse gas out of smokestack emissions before they can be released into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture tech is loved by fossil fuel companies, and despised by many environmental and health advocates — because instead of having to phase out fossil fuel-fired power plants, utilities can keep those plants open longer while still meeting climate goals. That’s a big disappointment to communities who had hoped that a transition to renewable energy would get rid of other pollutants like soot and smog stemming from power plants.

“We’re talking about putting all our hopes and dreams for the future in experimental [carbon capture] technology,” says Maria Lopez-Nuñez, a board member for the Climate Justice Alliance and a deputy director at Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey.

Lopez-Nuñez says she lives in a neighborhood with three power plants within four square miles. When the Biden administration initially proposed tougher carbon emission standards for power plants last year, it included existing gas power plants — but similarly relied on carbon capture to clean them up. That wouldn’t have gotten rid of other power plant air pollutants that her community has to deal with, Lopez-Nuñez says.

She wants the EPA to consider the cumulative impacts power plants have on residents when drafting new rules, and thinks it’s worth taking a gamble with the upcoming presidential election if the agency is serious about crafting a stronger rule.

“They better not be misleading folks with the delay because we are under the impression the delay is to strengthen the rule, not … to just hold off until the election. This is not a political game, you know, there are real lives at stake,” she says.

Costs are another big concern

Costs are another big concern with carbon capture. The Department of Energy (DOE) has already lost hundreds of millions of dollars funding carbon capture projects that ultimately failed, according to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office. After spending $684 million on carbon capture projects at six coal plants, just one got off the ground — the others just couldn’t sustain themselves financially. The one project that managed to start running later ended up shuttering in 2020 because it also couldn’t sustain itself during the pandemic, but came back online in Texas last year.

Recognizing those challenges, the EPA’s final rule also gives power plants more time to comply with pollution-cutting measures. Power plants have until 2032 to comply, which is two years later than what the EPA initially proposed last year. The Biden administration tried to bring costs down for carbon capture by expanding tax credits for the technologies in 2022. The hope is that it’ll be cheaper moving forward than it was when those DOE-funded projects flopped.

Coal plants are dirtier than gas plants, so they still are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, according to the EPA. It expects its new rules to avoid 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon pollution through 2047, which is like erasing nearly a full year of emissions from the power sector. The EPA also tightened limits on mercury emissions, water pollution, and coal ash from power plants today. Altogether, the measures garnered some celebration from environmental groups.

“The new standards announced today will dramatically reduce climate pollution while ensuring millions of people will have cleaner, safer air and water,” Abigail Dillen, president of the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, said in emailed comments to The Verge. “Tackling pollution from existing gas-fired power plants is the essential next step.”

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