EPA's New Carbon Rules for Power Plants Fall Short of Environmentalist Expectations

One of the linchpins of the Obama administration’s high-stakes plan to address climate change moved one step closer to implementation this week, as the EPA officially published proposed new carbon emissions standards for power plants, drawing fire from environmentalists who say the rules for natural gas power plants are too lenient.

The proposed rules cover both natural gas and coal-fired electrical plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The rules would make it virtually impossible for new coal-fired power plants to be built, unless carbon capture and sequestration technology is used, but sets standards that can be easily achieved by natural gas power plants without using any similar tools.

This has led to an outcry from environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity.

"If the EPA is serious about the climate crisis, it needs to be serious about reducing greenhouse pollution from all power plants — regardless of whether they are fueled by gas or coal,” Bill Snape, the senior counsel for the Center said in a statement. “The bottom line is that we can do better."

The rules for coal plants are not expected to have much direct impact on new power plant construction plans — utilities planned to build very few coal plants even before the EPA proposed its rule.

But once they are finalized, the standards for new power plants will trigger a key clause of the Clean Air Act, and the EPA will next be required to create similar carbon dioxide emissions guidelines that would govern the existing 6,500 coal and natural gas power plants nationwide.

“It’s important because it establishes the form that these regulations will take,” John Coequyt, of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign told ThinkProgress.

The EPA move is part of Mr. Obama’s overall climate strategy, which disappointed many observers who criticize its support of fracking and its underwhelming effectiveness. "The Obama administration is aiming for reductions by 2020," Brad Plumer wrote in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog earlier this week. "But that's not nearly enough to avert a 2°C rise in temperatures, which is the broader goal."  

Mr. Obama’s climate plan calls for a heavy reliance on natural gas, which produces roughly 50 to 60 percent as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned, to help transition away from coal. But there is strong evidence that natural gas, which is primarily composed of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, may be worse for the climate than coal. The Obama climate plan, in that case, would represent a move from the frying pan into the fire.

And right now, key infrastructure decisions are being made, as coal power plants nationwide are being retired at an unprecedented pace.

Just nine years ago, coal provided half of the nation’s electricity. By 2013, coal had fallen to 39 percent, Energy Information Administration statistics show, and this trend is likely to grow more pronounced. In certain parts of the country, coal has virtually ceased to play a role in power generation, as the Northeast is currently shuttering its last major coal plant.

In part, the decision about what to replace coal with comes down to costs. In recent years, coal has been more expensive for utilities than natural gas, whose prices plunged during the current shale drilling frenzy, and is also under increasing competition from renewables like wind and solar.

Unlike natural gas, renewables do not have a history of erratic price spikes. Instead, the price of renewables has slowly descended over the past few decades, while the price of natural gas has bounced dramatically even just since the shale boom began to emerge.

Despite these concerns, the President has lent strong support to the natural gas industry. "And again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas," Mr. Obama said during a June speech announcing his climate plan. "But we should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because in the medium-term at least, it can provide not only safe cheap power, but it can only help reduce our carbon emissions."

But the President’s plan has come under especially heavy fire for failing to adequately account for the climate-changing effect of natural gas leaks, which send vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere.  

Instead of cracking down, the EPA has largely looked the other way and downplayed the amount of methane that leaks, some researchers say. In late November, Harvard researchers took the EPA to task for understating methane leaks from oil and gas drilling and the agricultural industry.

After concluding that methane leaks from those two industries in Texas, Oklahoma and Kanas "have greenhouse gas impacts more than twice that" of official levels, the Harvard researchers criticized the EPA’s recently decreased estimates for methane leaks, saying that levels should have been raised instead.

These methane leaks may represent the natural gas industry’s biggest greenhouse gas impact. But the EPA’s new rules relate to an often-overlooked problem with burning natural gas. It may emit less carbon dioxide than coal, but it still gives off significant amounts. Nearly ten percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 came from burning natural gas for electricity.

The newly announced EPA rules would govern those carbon dioxide emissions. The proposed rules require coal plants to deploy carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies, but will not impose similar requirements for natural gas-fired plants. The rules have drawn howls from the coal industry, which says that CCS isn’t yet ready to be deployed (despite the industry’s own long history of advertising CCS and clean coal in slick ads).

The rules, however, set standards for CO2 emissions that most natural gas plants already meet, without using any kind of carbon capture.

This has some saying that the Obama administration loaded the dice in favor of the natural gas industry. "Having concluded that CCS is technically feasible for coal units, EPA also had to decide whether the same was true for gas units," attorneys from the law firm McGuireWoods LLP wrote this fall. "It concluded that it was not, finding, tepidly, that it "was not clear that full or partial capture CCS is technically feasible'" for natural gas.

This approach shows that the Obama administration is not pushing hard enough to address climate change, some say.

"The EPA’s lax standards for gas-fired power plants contradict President Obama’s strong statements about the urgent need to cut carbon and other greenhouse pollution," said Mr. Snape. "The president has rightly said we must find the courage to fight climate change before it’s too late to act. But his administration’s weak natural gas power-plant rules are a huge missed opportunity to fight the pollution that’s warming our planet and pushing us toward climate chaos."

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