carbon pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency has launched proposed standards to limit dangerous carbon pollution from new power plants.  This is the first big step to implement President Obama’s ambitious Climate Action Plan, announced in June. 

“The question,” the president told an audience at Georgetown University, “is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.  And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.” 

“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I am here to say we need to act.”

The president told EPA to propose carbon pollution standards for new power plants by today, as a prelude to developing standards for the existing fleet of power plants next year. 

We have standards for power plants’ emissions of toxic mercury, and pollutants that cause soot and smog.  But there are still no limits on the 2.2 billion tons of climate-changing carbon pollution that power plants belch out each year.

The standards released today are a refinement of ones proposed in 2012, reflecting new information on technologies to control power plants’ carbon pollution. 

At the National Press Club this morning, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said:  "New power plants -- both natural gas and coal-fired -- can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of modern technologies.  These technologies offer them a clear pathway forward today and in the long term." 

New plants will have to limit their carbon pollution to virtually the same levels as EPA proposed in 2012.  For large new combined-cycle gas plants – the predominant type being built – the standard will be 1000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generation (lbs/MWh).  Smaller combined-cycle gas plants will be allowed 1100 lbs/MWh.  And new coal plants – if any are built – will also be limited to 1100 lbs/MWh, a level that can be met with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

There’s been plenty of hubbub about what this means for coal.  Let’s cut through the hype: 

First, even without any new standards, the market for new coal plants has dried up.  That’s the assessment of virtually all government and private sector analysts.  The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, sees no new coal plants being built as far out as projections go.  A year ago there were still about a dozen zombie coal plant projects still trying to get permits and financing.  Nearly all of these projects have given up the ghost. 

They’ve been done in by market forces, not EPA.  Energy efficiency – smarter buildings, appliances, and factories – is trimming electricity demand as our economy rebounds from the Great Recession.  Wind and solar generation are growing rapidly.  And plentiful and inexpensive natural gas is out-competing coal. 

Second, carbon capture and storage is now available and ready for use.  EPA points to a wealth of data on CCS, including new plants slated to open next year, such as Southern Company’s Kemper plant in Mississippi, which will capture and store 60-65% of its CO2, and the Boundary Dam plant in Canada, which will hit more than 90% capture.  Kemper will meet EPA’s standard; Boundary Dam will do even better.  (Click here for questions and answers on CCS.)

Coal advocates claim CCS is not “commercially proven.”  Actually, there are a range of big-name companies ready to sell CCS equipment with performance guarantees.  But “commercially proven” is not even the Clean Air Act’s test.  Congress intended clean air standards to push pollution control technology forward, not to stop at what is already routine.  Industry tried to block sulfur dioxide “scrubbers” 40 years ago with the same arguments, but the courts have repeatedly upheld EPA standards that push technology forward.   

Coal advocates also argue that CCS is too expensive.  EPA has shown that taking into account all costs and revenues, the extra price of CCS is reasonable.  The Kemper plant, for example, will earn money selling its CO2 to oil companies, who’ll use it to push more oil out of old wells, and then store it underground.  There’s a big market for that.  And when we account for the real cost of carbon pollution – the damages that unrestrained carbon pollution imposes on current and future generations – CCS is a reasonable requirement for any new coal plants.  The era of unlimited carbon pollution is over.

Today’s announcement also signals that EPA is on track to carry out the next step in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, developing carbon pollution standards for existing power plants by next June.  Last month, EPA kicked off an ambitious drive to engage states, industry, environmentalists, and others in the nuts and bolts of developing effective, flexible standards for existing plants. 

NRDC started the ball rolling last year with an innovative plan to cut the power sector’s CO2 emissions by more than a quarter by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. Our plan would bring climate protection and public health benefits worth $26-60 billion in 2020, at a reasonable cost of $4 billion.  

Administrator McCarthy said today that she wants to draw out the experience states have already had curbing carbon pollution effectively and flexibly.  And citizens concerned about climate change will have opportunities to be heard all across the country.

Millions of Americans have already raised their voices in support of carbon pollution standards for both new and existing plants.  Click here to add your voice in favor of the new standards EPA has proposed today.