The White House unveiled a powerful incentive to speed track carbon capture technology innovations this morning with the release of highly-anticipated requirements to harness the emissions of new coal-fired power plants and natural gas facilities.
“These proposed standards are the first uniform national limits on carbon pollution from new power plants,” said Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top official at her speech launching the plan in Washington, D.C. “Today’s proposal sets separate national limits for new natural gas power plants and new coal power plants.”
Since power plants have long lifespans-often upwards of 50 years-today’s proposed regulations will shape the future of energy production in the United States if they clear the public comment period and are enacted into law. Taking action on new power plants also gives the Obama administration an opportunity to point to tangible action in one of its largest emissions areas at future international climate talks.
EPA made its case for the new regulations, which update an earlier proposal issued last year, in terms of health and infrastructure threats. The attempt to link climate change to these concerns is an ongoing effort to shore up support for climate action to the American electorate. “Climate change-caused by carbon pollution-is one of the most significant public health threats of our time,” she said. Higher temperatures promote ticks and mosquitoes, longer allergy seasons and smog, she said. They also exacerbate mudslides, flooding in areas with inadequate stormwater systems, heat waves, drought and wildfires. “Climate change is about the spread of disease,” she said.
“The standards set the stage for continued public and private investment in technologies like Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). With these investments, technologies will eventually mature and become as common for new power plants as scrubbers have become for well-controlled plants today,” she said.
Under the plan, new large natural gas plants would be required to emit less than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, while new small (those that put out less than 850 mmBtu/hr) natural gas plants would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. This new tiered approach is different from the last proposal, which called for the same limits on all natural gas plants. In essence, the new plan means that natural gas plants do not need to do anything to meet this new standard (check back here for more coverage on that later today). New coal plants would be capped at less than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. That means that, since these plants would be required to capture around 30 percent of C02 emissions, if a plant puts out an average of 4 million metric tons of CO2 each year, it now would need to cut that down to 3 million metric tons each year to comply with the rule.
Coal plants would not be able to meet these stringent standards without installing expensive equipment that captures carbon dioxide and buries it underground. Largely because of the pricetag, no coal-fired power plant has so far managed to harness emissions at commercial-scale. Critics of the plan have maintained that financing such expensive technology that captures and transports carbon dioxide will be untenable. McCarthy today responded to these criticisms by saying that today’s proposed regulations lay the necessary groundwork to change that reality. Carbon capture “is a technology that is feasible and available today. It’s being actually constructed on real facilities today, not just unconventional facilities but coal facilities,” she said. “The designs are now available for others that are coming up.”
How the coal industry will be able to afford to scale up carbon capture is a matter of some question. Coal plants, which supply 40 percent of U.S. electricity demand, have been struggling to compete with cheap natural gas.
The few coal plants that have made progress with CCS, like Southern Co.’s in Kemper County, Miss., did so with millions of dollars in federal grants and tax credits. The plant’s costs have reportedly become overrun, but McCarthy today said that Kemper’s rising costs were due, in part, to proprietary technologies other than the carbon capture technology. The Obama administration has already announced some $6 billion that will go toward supporting development of carbon capture technologies, McCarthy said today.
EPA’s new rules fulfill a promise Obama laid out in his climate policy speech at Georgetown University this past June and are part of a larger plan that has been in the works since the president’s first term-geared toward reining in tailpipe emissions and those from power plant smokestacks. McCarthy called Obama’s Georgetown speech “one of the most important speeches of his Presidency,” in this morning’s remarks. The federal Clean Air Act gives EPA one year to finalize today’s proposed rules, which make them enforceable law.
The EPA had rolled out even more stringent standards in April 2012 for smokestacks but loosened them in response to objections from industry. One change today allowed smaller natural gas plants more flexibility to achieve emissions targets, McCarthy said. The new plans will still be subject to a public comment period before they will become law.
In June the EPA is expected to come out with new rules requiring existing coal power plants to reduce their emissions.Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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