Will the Biden administration’s plan to clean up power plants work?
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the largest fossil fuel-fired power plants by 90% by 2040.
After transportation, electricity generation is the United States’ second-largest source of such CO2 emissions, which cause climate change and account for 25% of U.S. climate pollution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA is obliged to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and cutting emissions from power plants is a key component of President Biden’s pledge to halve U.S. emissions by 2050.
The power plant rules would work in concert with Biden’s other climate policies to move away from fossil fuels, such as the clean energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, and stricter regulation of other pollutants from coal, including coal ash, mercury and methane, a byproduct of gas.
Why there’s debate
Environmentalists generally praised the proposal, but some said it does not go far enough in switching electric utilities from fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, to cleaner energy sources like wind and solar, because it exempts smaller and less frequently used power plants. Some also object to the fact that the rule would allow fossil fuel plants to keep operating if they adopt carbon capture and storage technology, known as CCS. While that gets rid of carbon emissions, it doesn’t deal with the other pollutants from burning fossil fuels, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.
On the other side, Republicans and representatives of fossil fuel-producing states argue that requiring such steep emissions reductions is going to destroy the industry and hamstring the U.S. power sector. They also argue that CCS isn’t “adequately demonstrated,” as the Clean Air Act requires of any regulations that are to be based upon it.
The EPA’s last effort to regulate power plant emissions, during the Obama administration, was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the law only empowered the agency to require utilities to lower emissions from fossil fuel plants, and that demanding that they switch from coal to cleaner forms of energy exceeded its authority. The Biden administration’s new plan was crafted to require only emissions control technology — although utilities could choose to shut down coal and gas plants instead, specifically to avoid the legal vulnerability.
After the proposed regulation is published in the federal register in the coming weeks, a 60-day public comment period begins, during which advocates on both sides will offer criticism and make suggestions for changes. The EPA will then revise the proposal and issue a final rule, at which point opponents are expected to sue to block the rule from taking effect, arguing that the EPA did not correctly follow the Clean Air Act. The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal regulations, will then decide whether to allow it to move forward. Any ruling from the D.C. Circuit could potentially be appealed to the Supreme Court.
It’s a first step toward stopping climate pollution
“Carbon pollution is a public health emergency that must be addressed with urgency. When the health and safety of our communities, children, and grandchildren are at stake, we must act. … The proposed rule released by the EPA today is a necessary step to ensure that the true costs of fossil fuels are taken into account.” — Former Vice President Al Gore, in a statement
It will cost jobs in coal and gas production
“Once again, the Biden Administration is shutting down American energy production in the name of climate change. President Biden’s war on coal to promote Green New Deal policies is insulting to hard working West Virginians. This overbearing EPA rule will kill domestic energy production and force jobs overseas, giving more power to our adversaries. Energy security is national security, and I will do everything in my power to stop the Green New Deal from infiltrating the pro-American energy policies House Republicans are fighting for.” — Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., in a statement
It is part of a larger effort to work with the utilities to overhaul the industry
“On its own the rule is significant. But the rule is also designed as a crown jewel of sorts, the anchor of a much bigger set of rules and regulations. To understand its significance, it’s important to look at it as part of that bigger picture.” — Justin Worland, Time magazine
Transforming the power sector has to happen before electrifying cars and home appliances
“Eliminating carbon from transportation and buildings, the other two largest sources of greenhouse gasses, requires using a lot more electricity to power automobiles, cooking and heating. If that power isn’t coming from zero-carbon sources, then electrification just shifts emissions from one sector to another.” — Alexander C. Kaufman, HuffPost
Even the conservative Supreme Court is likely to uphold the rule
“This is not a topic that the EPA wants to revisit with the Supreme Court. However, if the court’s conservative majority sticks to its avowed preference for “textualist” interpretations of the law, the proposed regulations provide plenty of room for the court to find in the administration’s favor, on the basis that the new rules stick to much more familiar territory within the Clean Air Act than the Clean Power Plan did.” — Jennifer K. Rushlow, dean of Vermont School for the Environment, The Conversation
CCS isn’t economically viable yet, and closing fossil fuel plants could lead to electricity shortages
“The clean energy future is still the future, and the technologies that EPA wants to mandate don’t exist. Forcing fossil-fuel plants to shut down prematurely will endanger grid reliability.” — Wall Street Journal editorial
Fossil fuel plants should be forced to shut down, not allowed to keep going with modifications
“The rule continues to provide a pathway for fossil fuel plants to operate indefinitely at a time when we need to transition dramatically from fossil fuel plants to renewable energy plants.” — Jason Rylander, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, to NBC News
It won’t work if CCS doesn’t pan out
“If you build out a huge CCS system and it doesn’t work, you don’t just then say ‘Oh well, close up shop.’” — Steven Feit, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, to Gizmodo
It won’t hold up in court because CCS isn’t 'adequately demonstrated'
“By giving these plants until 2035 to begin operating with CCS, EPA is acknowledging that it won’t actually be feasible to use CCS to reduce CO2 emissions from these plants for another 12 years. This tends to undercut the argument that CCS has been adequately demonstrated.” — Jeff Holmstead, head of the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell, in an email to Yahoo News
It will hold up in court because it doesn’t have to be in use to be 'adequately demonstrated'
“The companies will try to make it sound like it has to be used for dozens and dozens of plants for dozens and dozens of years before you can say it is adequately demonstrated, and if that were true, we still wouldn’t have scrubbers for sulfur [systems that remove sulfur dioxide emissions] on power plants, because back in the day, there were only a few scrubbers. … When you stop and think about it, the reason the companies haven’t used these technologies is that it’s easier and cheaper to dump an unregulated pollutant into the atmosphere. But when there were sulfur limits, the companies simply started to use the scrubbers on a much more widespread basis.” — David Doniger, senior strategic director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Yahoo News
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