Weakening Carbon Standards for Coal Plants Is Unjustified

EPA recently issued a proposal to significantly weaken carbon pollution standards for new coal-fired power plants. Today the public will have the opportunity to testify before EPA about the proposed rollback. Here are the remarks I will give this afternoon to express NRDC’s objections to this unjustified and irresponsible proposal.

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Last November, the federal government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment describing the climate change impacts already occurring in the U.S. and the grave risks to come. A month earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that we need to take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic global warming.

But under the Trump administration, EPA is relentlessly proposing rollbacks of virtually every federal limit on climate-changing emissions. In the last several months, this agency has proposed: to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan’s limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants; to weaken standards for methane emissions from oil and gas operations; and to freeze fuel efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles. A rational administration would take swift and decisive action to curb the pollution that’s driving climate change. But the Trump administration seems dead set on dragging us back to a dirty fossil-fueled past.

New Source Performance Standards are supposed to reflect the best system of emission reduction. Congress intended that these standards “should be stringent in order to force the development of improved technology.” The D.C. Circuit established decades ago that Clean Air Act section 111 “looks forward to what may fairly be projected for the regulated future, rather than the state of the art at present.”

But this proposed rule looks backward. The proposed standards of 1,900 to 2,200 lbs. CO2/MWh-g are based on EPA’s finding that the best system of emission reduction is “the most efficient demonstrated steam cycle.” As EPA acknowledges, this proposed standard would not promote technological development. Rather, “the use of supercritical steam conditions has been demonstrated by multiple facilities since the 1970s,” and nearly 90 percent of large coal plants built since 2010 already use this technology.

Instead of the stringent, technology-forcing standard the Clean Air Act mandates, this proposal is a lowest-common-denominator standard based on decades-old technology. Even worse, EPA’s own analysis estimates that one new coal plant would emit 1.1 million more tons of CO2 per year under this proposal, compared to the current standards. Inexplicably the Agency did “not attempt to quantify the impacts of these increased emissions.”

The current standards, as established in 2015, are based on a best system of emission reduction that includes partial carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. EPA’s 2015 determination was based on a robust record showing the technical and economic feasibility of CCS and the wide geographic availability of places to safely store the captured carbon underground. Since 2015, the evidence has only gotten stronger that CCS technology is adequately demonstrated and comes at reasonable cost.

This proposal would rescind the CCS requirement based on new assertions that CCS is too costly and not widely available. But the proposal fails to overcome the extensive record underlying the 2015 standards, ignores more recent evidence supporting CCS, and neglects to build a new record of support for a weak proposed standard that would result in increased emissions.

In this proposal, EPA maintains its 2015 forecast that few, if any, new coal plants will be built, but tries to use that fact to justify weakening the standards. That new coal plants are uneconomic, with or without CCS, is no basis for ignoring EPA’s Clean Air Act obligation to set standards based on the best system of emission reduction, in case someone decides to defy market signals and build a new coal plant anyway.

U.S. power markets have changed dramatically in the last decade: electricity demand growth is down as businesses and consumers adopt more efficient products; low natural gas prices have led to widespread expansion of gas generation; and declining wind and solar costs have driven significant increases in renewable generation. But we cannot rely on market forces alone to achieve the emission reductions necessary to avert the worst of climate change. The 2015 standards serve as backstop against changes in these trends, and set investment expectations for utilities: if a company considers building a new coal plant, it is on notice that the plant will need to use partial CCS or other technologies to meet that emission standard.

The burden is on EPA to justify why the existing forward-looking, environmentally-protective standards should be replaced with a backward-looking standard that would increase emissions and harm public health. This proposal does not meet that burden and must not be finalized.

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EPA will accept public comments on the proposed rollback through March 18. Instructions on how to comment are available here.

About the Authors

Lissa Lynch

Staff Attorney, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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