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4 winners and 1 loser in the EPA’s historic move to limit power plant pollution

One winner: Natural gas.

The EPA expects its power plant proposals would slash carbon dioxide emissions by at least 617 million metric tons through 2042, equivalent to halving the total number of cars on the road for a year.
AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

In 2013, President Barack Obama announced on a blisteringly hot June day at Georgetown University that his administration would be taking historic action to address power plant pollution — an attempt ultimately blocked in court.

The Biden administration’s rollout of the new rules on Thursday was a more understated affair. Instead of a big presidential announcement, EPA administrator Michael Regan spoke from the University of Maryland about the agency’s third attempt at regulating power plant pollution from existing plants, explaining “these aren’t restrictions, as some would say,” but about “seizing the moment and understanding that we have an obligation” to leave a healthier planet behind.

The proposed rules are a less elegant and splashy solution than the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, but the complex set of proposals also stands a better chance of withstanding court scrutiny. The EPA breaks down requirements based on the type of plant, its size, and how often it is in use. Utilities, working with states, would ultimately decide how to meet the EPA’s emissions rates by choosing among available technologies. Coal plants, for instance, could fire less carbon-intensive fuels such as hydrogen and gas, to supplement coal. Coal and gas plants can also install carbon capture and storage or sequestration, a technology that removes carbon dioxide at the smokestack to eventually store it underground. Or a plant could bypass all this if it sets a retirement date in the medium term.

As a result, existing coal plants would cut their carbon pollution 90 percent by the end of the decade, unless a plant sets a retirement date before 2040. Existing gas plants get more leeway — only the largest gas plants, less than a third in operation, will have to slash their pollution by 90 percent by 2035.

The EPA makes a dent in coal pollution especially, but it doesn’t eliminate power plant pollution entirely. It leaves a mixed bag of winners and losers.

Winner: The EPA

The Supreme Court has knocked down the EPA’s attempted power sector rules twice, first by halting the Clean Power Plan from going into effect and again by finding it violated the Clean Air Act. Trump’s weak replacement, which would have effectively increased emissions, also didn’t pass muster from federal courts.

It’s now the EPA’s third time attempting to regulate the power sector. To comply with the Supreme Court ruling, the EPA looks only at technology that can be upgraded inside the power plant (rather than shifting the power mix statewide to renewables). That leaves a limited set of options: A plant could lower its emissions by installing lower-emissions technology, like hydrogen, or carbon capture technology that works like a scrubber would to remove carbon before it enters the atmosphere. The suite of rules affects existing coal and gas plants differently depending on its size, how often it’s in use, and whether it has a date to retire.

All these carveouts and exceptions make for a difficult way to sum up the rule in a soundbite — this is no Clean Power Plan 2.0. But it also makes for a sturdier rule that can stand up to the lawsuits and court scrutiny to follow.

Once the rule is finalized and in effect (a process that is still at least a year away), the agency can finally say it is regulating carbon pollution from the power sector.

“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and wellbeing,” said EPA Administrator Regan.

Winners: Carbon capture and storage and hydrogen

The rules shine a spotlight on two lesser-known technologies.

Companies like NextEra Energy have already eyed clean hydrogen for its potential, and they may be right: the technology is named as an option for utilities to also use at gas and coal plants.

Carbon capture and storage, more controversially, also get a boost. There are only a few existing handfuls of examples of carbon capture and sequestration’s use in the US and around the world (and just as memorable examples of these plants shutting down because of shaky economic conditions). The EPA makes the case that this technology is ready for the primetime, though, because of new government investments bringing down its cost.

“Today’s proposed rules elevate the role of carbon capture by naming it as one of the available technologies for reaching emissions standards for new and existing fossil fuel-fired power plants,” said Jessie Stolark, executive director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group that represents corporate interests on carbon capture.

With new funding in both the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Stolark noted, “for the first time, project developers have a portfolio of complementary federal policies to catalyze the deployment of these technologies in the industry, power, and direct air capture sectors.”

The emphasis on carbon capture worries environmental justice advocates who view it as an excuse to keep coal around. “Carbon capture and sequestration technologies are harmful and unproven,” said Juan Jhong Chung, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and member of the Climate Justice Alliance. “They do not operate at scale, and to expand carbon capture to a fraction of what is envisioned by this order would require constructing thousands of miles of polluting pipelines into communities already most impacted by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Whether carbon capture will really take off in the coal sector is unclear. The EPA acknowledged they’d expect some coal plants to retire rather than opt for more expensive upgrades, especially when renewables are cheaper. But some plants still have a lengthy timeline before they see enforcement, giving them a license to pollute.

Winner: The vast majority of gas plants

Natural gas plants face a different set of requirements than coal. Notably, the proposal only applies to plants that are over 300 megawatts and run at least 50 percent of the time. That only covers about 23 percent of existing gas plants today.

The vast majority of existing gas plants are exempted in this proposal, and Evergreen Action says there are a large number just below 300 MW. Charles Harper, power sector policy expert said Evergreen Action will be joining other environmental groups in making the case that the EPA should expand this threshold in the final rule. The EPA is accepting comments on lowering its threshold to plants as low as 150 megawatts.

Loser: Biden’s 2035 clean grid goal

One of Biden’s climate pledges coming into office was to get to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. The EPA’s rule doesn’t get the US there. The EPA expects the regulation would slash carbon dioxide emissions by at least 617 million metric tons through 2042, equivalent to halving the total number of cars on the road for a year.

That’s a longer timeline than the US really has to address its power plant pollution and be in line with global climate targets.

A clean grid matters for more than eliminating a source of 25 percent of US pollution. Over the next decade, more people and businesses will switch from gas and oil powering their appliances and gasoline-powered cars. But electric vehicles and heat pumps aren’t truly clean alternatives unless they’re also plugging into a grid run on renewables.

It’s also about managing expectations for how much power the EPA has to tackle climate change. “The EPA’s authority is to determine what the best system of emissions reduction is and set standards based on that system,” said Jay Duffy, litigation director with the Clean Air Task Force. “Reaching climate goals is not part of the Clean Air Act instructions. It’s a nice co-benefit that we do get with strong rules.”

But the EPA is also not working in a vacuum, because the US now has the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand renewables. EPA modeling has shown these laws will mean an 80 percent reduction in emissions from electricity by 2040. There’s still a wide gap to close between where current policy gets us and Biden’s ambitions, but it’s smaller than where it was.

Winner: Senator Joe Manchin

Even before the EPA rules were public, Senator Joe Manchin made his position against them clear. “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 statement. He said the regulation “piles on top of a broader regulatory agenda being rolled out designed to kill the fossil industry by a thousand cuts.”

Manchin has taken a stand by promising to oppose all EPA nominees going forward until they “halt their government overreach.” The threat probably carries minimal consequences, since two pending EPA nominees are already advanced out of committee.

There’s a case that Manchin is actually a winner, though, at least in a political sense. Manchin hasn’t officially announced his reelection campaign for the Senate, but if he runs he will be in a challenging battle to fend off a Republican takeover. The EPA rules are an unusual gift to his campaign, because he can use the issue to keep his distance from Biden and show off that he is fossil fuels’ biggest champion.