March 28, 2012

EPA Announces New Carbon Regulations: What You Need to Know

Cross-posted from Through a Green Lens.

On Tuesday, the EPA officially announced its long-awaited rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants -- the first ever in U.S. history. According to the standards, new plants can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. Natural gas plants fall within this limit; coal plants do not.

So what does this mean for coal? At the moment, not much. The key word is new -- plants already running are exempt from the regulations. In a move that startled climate advocates, EPA Admin Lisa Jackson declared that there were "no plans to address existing plants," which, of course, produce the vast majority of the power sector's carbon emissions.

But here's the catch: The EPA may be legally obligated to regulate existing coal plants, at some point. Grist's David Roberts explains,

Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act... then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act....

Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.

So a carbon rule for existing sources should appear sometime in the future, but, as far as the Administration is concerned, there's no point in talking up more regulations until something's actually on the table. Thus, "no plans," at least until after the election. (Of course, under a Republican president, the EPA, if it even existed, would undoubtedly scrap all carbon limits.)

We've still taken a step forward. The new EPA carbon rules help the clean energy effort by effectively outlawing new coal-fired plants. In order to meet the requirements, coal plants would have to capture and store their CO2 emissions, and carbon sequestration isn't available yet on a large scale.

Interestingly, the coal industry built an entire lobbying campaign around this technology, dubbed "clean coal," and politicians, including Obama, picked up the term becase they like alliteration. But when faced with actually implementing it, the industry people balk. Apparently, we should keep using coal because coal is clean, but we can't require coal to be clean because clean coal, in the words of a Peabody Energy spokesman, "doesn’t exist as a commercial technology." Thanks for clearing that up!

The bottom line: As long as the rule holds, we don't have to worry about stopping new coal plants. Instead, activists can focus on transitioning old coal energy to renewable sources. We are nearer than ever to a coal-free America.

Going forward, here are some action priorities based on the new EPA regulations:

  • Expect Republicans in Congress to undermine the carbon rules in any way they can, and be ready to counter their efforts.
  • Push for regulation of natural gas drilling (fracking), since the EPA rules do not hinder gas-powered plants.
  • Keep promoting clean energy projects, so we can shift away from dirty coal altogether.

As always, don't hesitate to add your own ideas and ask questions in the comments.