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The EPA is lifting greenhouse gas limits on coal power plants

The latest proposal won’t stop the steady decline of the coal industry.

American Electric Power’s Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, captures some of its carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA is preparing to roll back CO2 rules for coal plants.
American Electric Power’s Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, captures some of its carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA is preparing to roll back CO2 rules for coal plants.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Environmental Protection Agency, now led by acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, has announced more rollbacks regulations on coal-fired power plants. It’s a striking move for two big reasons: No new coal plants are being built in the US, and the EPA itself (along with 12 other federal agencies) recently put out a sweeping report detailing the need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels because of the grave threat of climate change.

The new proposal involves loosening an Obama-era restriction on how much carbon dioxide new coal power plants can emit. Known as the New Source Performance Standards, a provision under the Clean Air Act, the rule established in 2015 said coal plants couldn’t emit more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

This would have likely required new coal plants to install carbon capture technologies to limit some of their emissions. But the coal industry argued in court that these technologies are too expensive and immature to deploy at scale, so the new standard is too difficult to meet. The lawsuit against the New Source Performance Standard was suspended once the EPA announced last year that it was looking to revise the rule.

The EPA now wants to relax the limit to 1,900 pounds of CO2 per MWh.

“Consistent with President Trump’s executive order promoting energy independence, EPA’s proposal would rescind excessive burdens on America’s energy providers and level the playing field so that new energy technologies can be a part of America’s future,” said Wheeler in a press release.

In a press conference, he also said that “coal is the cheapest form of electricity and cheap electricity helps the environment.”

Weakening pollution rules for existing and new coal-fired power plants has long been part of the Trump administration’s strategy to resurrect the US coal industry, which has been shrinking and hemorrhaging jobs for decades. The EPA put out a proposal in August to replace another Obama regulation, the Clean Power Plan, which targets existing power plants. The replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, would lead to 1,400 additional premature deaths each year by 2030, according to EPA’s own calculations.

But it’s not regulations that are hurting the US coal industry; it’s competition. Natural gas and renewables are increasingly cheaper than coal. With energy demand projected to stay level, that means it’s coal that’s going to yield.

Coal supply and demand has been declining for years in the United States.
Coal supply and demand has been declining for years in the United States.
US Energy Information Administration

And in addition to the weak economic rationale, the new policies stand to slow the transition toward cleaner sources of energy at a time when scientists are warning that the world may have as little as 12 years to act to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution.

“[The rollback]’s an international signal that we’re not taking carbon capture and sequestration and reducing impacts from coal seriously,” said Jay Duffy, an associate attorney at the Clean Air Task Force.

Trump can’t save coal, but he’s trying to slow its demise

As we’ve pointed out over and over again, the coal industry in the United States has been floundering for years, and there’s little Trump can do to stop it. In 2018 alone, 20 coal-fired power plants have closed or are scheduled to shut down. Overall coal power generation capacity has fallen by one-third since 2010. And coal consumption is at its lowest level since 1979. Meanwhile, coal mining jobs have cratered from a high of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to roughly 76,000 today.

Yet even as nations are gathering in Poland this week to discuss how to implement the Paris climate agreement, the US delegation plans to host a panel touting the virtues of fossil fuels, the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

The EPA’s latest proposal only affects new coal power plants. The last new coal plant to come online in the US was the 600-megawatt John W. Turk, Jr. Power Plant in Arkansas back in 2012. It’s actually one of the most high-tech, most efficient coal power plants in the country. But with a $1.8 billion price tag, it was the most expensive project in Arkansas history.

Duffy pointed out that the Turk plant emits about 1,725 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, so it’s already beating the EPA’s proposed benchmarks. It’s likely that with current technology, any hypothetical new coal power plant would have to do almost nothing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, rendering the new regulation meaningless.

“It’s nothing burger,” he said. “It’s a no-standard standard.”

The EPA itself expects the rule to have little impact, on either the industry or the environment, according to the Federal Register notice for the proposal:

As previously stated, the EPA does not anticipate emission changes resulting from the rule as the EPA projects there to be, at most, few new, modified, or reconstructed coal-fired steam generating units that will trigger the provisions the EPA is proposing. Therefore, there are no direct climate or human health benefits associated with this rulemaking.

At the same time, coal plants are closing everywhere, and no new ones are even on the drawing board. In fact, environmental groups can’t even sue to block the proposal at this point, since there is no plant in the works that could potentially violate the Obama-era greenhouse gas limits. No harm, no foul. However, environmental groups are ready to litigate if the proposal becomes finalized.

Where this proposal could make a difference is in extending the lives of existing plants, Duffy explained. There’s a quirk in EPA regulations that says that if you modify an existing coal plant enough, it can be considered as a new plant. So, in theory, an aging power generator could get some upgrades that would extend its operating life but would also allow it to be held to the weaker greenhouse gas limit.

The EPA is taking the long view in resurrecting coal

Janet McCabe, who served as the acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA under Obama, said that while coal is currently losing ground to natural gas and renewables on price, that might not always be the case.

Theoretically, the cost of natural gas could spike or a supply shortage could raise the price of wind and solar, making coal more competitive in comparison. So a lower greenhouse gas target, even when no new plants are being built, serves as a hedge for a future where coal’s fortunes are reversed.

She added that the emissions limits for new coal power facilities serve as a foundation for standards for existing plants. By limiting what counts as feasible for new generators, the EPA also limits what it can do to coal power plants that are already built. That would help the EPA make the case for its Affordable Clean Energy proposal, which aims to weaken the greenhouse gas targets for existing power plants that were set out under the previous administration.

And the EPA is aiming even higher in fighting climate change regulations. The current administration has shown little appetite to challenge the endangerment finding for CO2, the foundation of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. However, the agency is considering applying air pollution regulations “differently in the context of greenhouse gases than for traditional pollutants,” according to a press release.

So rather than targeting CO2 the way the EPA already targets pollutants like sulfur dioxide, the EPA is taking comments on whether CO2 should be treated as a lesser hazard, likely leading to even weaker regulations of fossil fuels.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that environmental groups could not sue to block the EPA’s latest New Source Performance Standard rule. Groups can sue once the proposal is finalized as a rule. However, they can’t sue while the rule is in the proposal stage and there are no power plants seeking to implement the proposal.

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