For years, the federal government has been stymied on climate action. But over recent months, we have seen some promising moves by the Biden administration. One of these moves includes the Inflation Reduction Act, which may generate hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in clean energy.
Now, EPA has proposed new federal standards that are designed to slash carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. Getting this right is important, as drastically cutting carbon from the power sector is key to our states’ strategies for cleaning up transportation and the way we heat our buildings.
As proposed, these rules have the potential to make a real dent in emissions nationwide. Of concern, though, are a number of loopholes that could distract us from our transition to clean energy and impose ongoing public health harms on communities already shouldering the impacts of climate change.
Let’s look at what these standards would do and what they mean for New England.
New Regulations Mandate Cuts to Climate-damaging Pollution from Power Plants
EPA’s new standards impose limits on how much climate-damaging emissions can be released into the air and atmosphere by three categories of fossil fuel power plants: new gas-fired plants, certain existing large and frequently operating gas-fired power plants, and certain types of existing coal plants. The limits for each category are meant to target the plants that are likely to pollute the most over the longest period of time. As a result, the limitations vary depending on how frequently plants will run and for how long into the future.
For example, new gas power plants designed to operate almost all the time must reduce their climate-damaging pollution by 90% before they can come online. Existing gas facilities that are 300 megawatts or larger and run more than 50% of the time must reduce their emissions by 90% by 2035 at the earliest. On the other hand, the rules give a complete pass to those existing coal plants that run at only 20% of their capacity and agree to shut down by 2035 and coal facilities that operate at any capacity that agree to shut down by 2032.
Importantly, EPA doesn’t dictate how the plants should slash emissions. Instead, each state will have two years after the rules are finalized to develop state-specific implementation and enforcement plans. These plans identify ways for existing plants within the state to reach EPA’s proposed requirements. The EPA emphasizes that states must include community voices in developing these plans, such as communities disproportionately burdened by climate pollution and impacts, the plant operator, and the plant’s employees.
EPA’s proposed standards are intended to provide flexibility as to how each plant must achieve its requirements to account for the variety of different designs and circumstances of each plant. Some of the pathways for plants include:
- upgrades in the efficiency of the plant, so it can maintain normal operations, but do so with less fuel and pollution
- changes to how often the plant operates
- shifting from fossil fuels to other technologies (like solar or wind)
- blending in hydrogen or other fuels to lower overall emissions
- “carbon capture and sequestration”: removing carbon emissions produced by the power plant and storing them in geologic sites like sandstone deposits (rather than releasing them into the atmosphere).
Why New England Needs These Power Plant Standards
We need to reach zero carbon pollution by 2050 to slow the climate crisis’s devastating impacts, like flooding and extreme weather. Clean energy and energy efficiency are critical climate solutions, but we must combine them with moving away from fossil fuels entirely. New England has largely phased out its dirtiest power plants – those that run on coal. But we still rely on gas to produce electricity. In fact, gas powered plants account for more than half the region’s electricity.
Simply put, New England states can’t reach their mandatory emissions targets without leaving fossil fuels like gas in the past. If revised and implemented properly, EPA’s new power plant standards could go a long way to help us phase out fossil fuels as we focus on building more solar and wind across the region.
If made more stringent, EPA’s proposed rules could also accelerate the closure of dirty power plants that are disproportionately located in communities of color and with low socioeconomic status, saving lives and improving health for those living in the shadows of these plants.
Where the Power Plant Standards Fall Short
Unfortunately, the rule’s various exemptions set up a potential shell game in which power plant operators can avoid actually cutting emissions in many cases. They could do so either by shifting generation type so that plants fall within the exemption or relying more on plants that are exempt from the rules altogether. EPA needs to tighten its standards to eliminate these loopholes.
Another concern is the standards’ reliance on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is not a practical climate solution in many areas of the country, due to the lack of suitable geologic storage sites locally and the prohibitive cost of building an extensive new pipeline system to transport the captured carbon pollution hundreds of miles away.
To make matters worse, the pipelines used to transport carbon are prone to leaks. In addition to damaging the climate, leaked carbon dioxide can cause all sorts of problems for people, from difficulty breathing to deadly explosions – consequences no New Englander deserves to contend with.
Finally, the EPA identifies hydrogen as an alternate fuel that gas power plants can blend with their gas to lower emissions. But almost all hydrogen in the U.S. is currently either produced from fossil fuels or using electricity generated by fossil fuels.
There is a way to use solar or wind to create a cleaner form of hydrogen, but doing so at scale is expensive and risks detracting from our efforts to have clean energy run our entire electricity grid. It would mean committing substantially more resources to producing another fuel rather than using those clean resources to power our lives directly. In our view, hydrogen is a resource that must be deployed in a targeted manner, particularly focused on industries that are challenging to electrify, like heavy shipping and certain manufacturing processes like steel.
What Comes Next for the EPA’s Power Plant Standards
The announcement of these standards is just the beginning. Now, the EPA will allow for public comments, including a public hearing, on the regulations. CLF will be at the forefront urging EPA to address our concerns regarding the standards’ loopholes.
In addition, the EPA will need to finalize its requirements regarding public engagement in the development of state plans, given how critical it is to bring justice to communities most burdened by pollution and climate change. CLF and our community partners will be deeply engaged to ensure the process is designed to hold states accountable in listening to every New Englander and eliminating the consequences of power plant pollution for everyone.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to urge our state governments to put the climate laws and policies they’ve passed into action so we keep climbing towards our clean energy future.