Six things to know about Biden’s proposed crackdown on power plant emissions
On Thursday, the Biden administration proposed a new rule aimed at slashing power plants’ contribution to climate change.
The rule, which deals with coal plants and some gas plants, would set strict limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.
Here are six things to know about the rule.
It would majorly reduce climate-warming emissions from the power sector
The rule is expected to result in significant reductions in power plant emissions if finalized.
Under the rule, coal plants would have to use carbon capture technology to cut their emissions by 90 percent.
Gas plants would have two options: either deliver the same 90 percent cuts using carbon capture, or run predominantly on low-carbon hydrogen energy, using 96 percent hydrogen by 2038.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that between 2028 and 2042, the rule will cut 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air — the equivalent of the pollution produced by 137 million passenger cars, or about half of all cars in the U.S., in one year.
It also says that the rule will result in reductions of additional air pollution, preventing 1,300 premature deaths in 2030.
It would cause some coal plants to shutter
Some companies are expected to retire coal plants in response to the rule rather than comply with the regulations.
The EPA estimates that an additional 22 gigawatts of coal power capacity will go offline between 2023 and 2035 when compared to a baseline. It’s not exactly clear how many power plants this represents, as their capacities may vary, though a majority of U.S. plants have capacities between 0.25 and 0.75 gigawatts.
“We will see some coal retirements, but the way this program is designed, this is really a decision that will be made company-by-company and state-by-state,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters Wednesday.
He also described the rule’s expected impacts on power prices as “negligible” — raising them 2 percent in 2030, 0.24 percent in 2035 and 0.08 percent in 2040.
It does not apply to all existing gas plants
The rule targets new plants that would come online and burn natural gas, but only goes after some existing gas plants.
Specifically, it targets plants with capacities larger than 300 megawatts that run at least 50 percent of time.
The EPA estimates this will apply to about 37 gigawatts of existing natural gas capacity, representing a projected 23 percent of the power that is produced from gas in 2035. That could leave three-quarters of gas power unregulated.
It relies on uncommon technologies
The climate pollution limits rely on technologies — carbon capture and hydrogen power — that aren’t widely used.
The only major U.S. power plant that used carbon capture shuttered in 2020 amid low fuel prices caused by the coronavirus pandemic. There are some pilot programs in which power plants use hydrogen as fuel, according to Frank Wolak, president and CEO of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, but no major plants are using it in the U.S.
However, the EPA rule pointed to examples where carbon capture has been in use, including at plants in Canada, Maryland and Oklahoma. Of hydrogen, the agency said “many models” of new plants have shown meeting the rule’s 2032 threshold for hydrogen is feasible and that utilities are, in tests, firing hydrogen alongside other fuel. It also said that some utilities plan to move to 100 percent hydrogen in the future and specifically pointed to a project in Los Angeles.
Republicans, the fossil fuel industry and Manchin are already pushing back
The rule received swift pushback from Republicans, as well as players in the fossil fuel industry. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) released a statement saying she planned to introduce a resolution in Congress that would seek to overturn the rule.
Congress has a limited window to overturn rules and efforts to do so require the approval of both chambers and the president. Therefore, the success of a congressional effort to overturn the rule is likely to be contingent on both the timing of when the EPA finalizes the rule and a Republican sweep of House, Senate and White House control in the 2024 election.
Meanwhile, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) indicated that he planned to sue over the rule when it’s final.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has placed significant limits on what the EPA can do—we plan on ensuring that those limits are upheld, and we expect that we would once again prevail in court against this out-of-control agency,” he said in a written statement.
Before the proposed rule was even unveiled, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) came out against its reported contents.
The West Virginia Democrat, who has frequently butted heads with the Biden administration over climate policy in recent months, cited the expected proposal when announcing on Wednesday that he would oppose all the president’s nominees to the EPA.
“This Administration is determined to advance its radical climate agenda and has made it clear they are hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence, no matter the cost to energy security and reliability,” he said in a written statement.
The National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, said in a written statement that the EPA should not be relying on carbon capture.
“Mandating their use in a rulemaking before this technology is technically and fully economically demonstrated is nothing more than unlawful showmanship reinforcing a destructive agenda,” the group said.
Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration and Production Council, which represents oil and gas drillers, also pushed back, saying in a written statement, “we have concerns about any rule that relies on unproven and uneconomical technologies in an effort to diminish the critical role that natural gas plays in providing clean, affordable, and reliable energy to every American family and business.”
Past attempts to regulate the power sector have faced court hurdles
Past attempts to regulate coal plants from both the Obama and Trump administrations ran into court hurdles.
The Obama-era Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court before it ever took effect and then more formally rejected by the high court last year. In the latter decision, the court specifically went after the plan’s approach of regulating the sector as a whole, saying the EPA was limited to regulations that could apply to each individual plant.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s rule, which only applied to coal plants and was expected to deliver significantly fewer climate benefits, was also struck down by a federal court during former President Trump’s last day in office.
William Buzbee, a law professor at Georgetown University, said he believes the EPA’s new proposal, if finalized, would stand a better chance in court than the other two rules.
“This proposal’s very careful to really closely hew to what the Supreme Court allowed and then in a big change from the earlier actions is very careful to cite very particular sites and facilities and projects and what they are doing and can do to really make clear that this is a fact-based regulatory action,” he said
“If the final rule looks like this and if industry really cannot punch holes into EPA’s empirical observations, it would be very hard to write an opinion striking this down,” he added.
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