Top Ten Legal Questions and Answers on Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants

Now that the government shutdown is over, EPA is back on the job to carry out President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The central pillar of that plan is using the Clean Air Act to set the carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants.  Power plants are the nation’s largest source of the heat-trapping pollution that drives dangerous climate change, and there are no federal limits on their carbon pollution today.

In December 2012, NRDC proposed a flexible, “system based” plan for cutting dangerous carbon pollution from the nation’s existing power plants. Our proposal responds to the urgent threat of climate change and offers overwhelming benefits at reasonable cost. Using the same power sector modeling tools used by the EPA and the power industry, NRDC projects that our plan will achieve a 26 percent reduction in power sector CO2 emissions by 2020, compared with 2005 levels, with climate protection and public health benefits worth $26 to 60 billion in 2020, at a reasonable cost of $4 billion.

EPA has launched an extensive outreach process to gather input from states and other stakeholders on how to cut power plant carbon pollution in the most environmentally beneficial and cost-effective way.  The agency is holding nearly a dozen listening sessions across the country, starting next week.

Many people have asked good questions about EPA’s authority to set these standards under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.  So we’ve compiled a top ten list of questions and answers.  I’ll list the questions below, and you can find the answers – or at least NRDC’s answers – here.  Readers up for an extra challenge can write their own answers first, and then compare them with ours. 

So here are our top ten legal questions concerning power plant standards under Section 111(d):

  1. What Is Section 111 of the Clean Air Act?
  2. What is a system-based approach?
  3. Does the Clean Air Act authorize the EPA to employ a system-based approach in its emissions guidelines for existing power plants?
  4. May a system-based approach include compliance options based on actions beyond those implemented at affected power plants (i.e., credits for non-emitting generation or demand-side efficiency)?
  5. How would a system-based approach affect the stringency of the standard of performance?
  6. Is the EPA required to set separate standards of performance for existing EGUs burning different fuels?
  7. May the EPA’s emissions guideline require different standards of performance from state to state?
  8. How does a system-based standard take into account “remaining useful life”? 
  9. What criteria should the EPA set for approving alternative state plans?
  10. Should the EPA establish “standby” federal plans?

Now, no looking at your neighbors’ answers!  Put your head down on your desk when you are done. 

You can check your answers against ours here.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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