EPA’s New Standard on Carbon Pollution: A Climate Changer?

by Bill Chameides | March 28th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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New proposed rule for power plants is more like much ado about not all that much.

Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency announced new carbon pollution standards for new power plants. Not surprisingly, the usual suspects are crying foul, and, looking into their crystal balls, lamenting the inevitable damage to the economy. (See here, here and here.) Even putting aside the need to address carbon emissions because of global warming, I don’t see that the naysayers have a legitimate beef.

Not Much of an Impact Any Time Soon

The reason why this is such a non-event is that it’s all about future power.

The rule [pdf] excludes existing plants as well as those with permits on the drawing board whose construction begins within 12 months. Moreover, the standards match what is achievable by natural gas-fired power plants. Yes, that kind of puts power companies that were planning to apply for a permit to build a coal-fired power plant in a bind* but let’s face it, concerns over toxic air pollution and the economics of natural gas have already put a damper on future coal-fired plants.

Cheap and in plentiful supply these days, natural gas is far and away the fuel of choice for power companies. Between 2000 and 2010, the Energy Information Administration reports, natural gas accounted for 81 percent of all new power additions to the U.S. grid while coal accounted for just four percent. Since 2005, 161 planned coal-fired plants have been scrapped, and there aren’t many waiting in the wings.

By EPA’s count [pdf] only15 coal-fired plants with permits in hand are poised to break ground, and the six of those that are designed for carbon, capture, and storage (technology that aims to snag the carbon that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere and store it somewhere more terrestrial) could potentially meet the standard. The EIA projects that natural gas will continue to be favored over coal for the next decade or so.

And so EPA’s proposed rule merely reinforces the status quo — moving away from coal toward natural gas is what utilities have already been doing. No change of course, no added costs, and, by the way, no emissions reductions. In the language of climate change policy, we call that business as usual. That’s what we call business as usual, the scenario against which the effectiveness of climate policy is supposed to be measured, so as a climate mitigation step, this ain’t much. (In fact, while a switch from coal to natural gas is probably a step in the right direction, that might not be the case if too much natural gas escapes from mines and leaks from pipes. For more on this issue, see my posts here, here, here and here.)

Rule Follows Utilities’ Lead

Some utilities already get this. Just ask Jim Rogers, the chief executive officer of Duke Energy, the largest utility in the United States. (Note: Duke Energy has no relationship to Duke University.) A few years ago he thought the price of natural gas was too unstable and the supply too constrained to invest Duke Energy’s future fleet in the fuel. But now, he’s convinced on natural gas. Duke Energy has no plans to build coal-fired plants for the next two decades. Other energy folks agree.

Real Nugget: Sets Baseline for Future

What the rule does is eliminate future uncertainty by setting a baseline for future power plants. A fossil fuel plant can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt hour. Natural gas already meets this requirement. It’s true that if coal is to play a part in the power plants of the future, it’s time to innovate. And there are some truly innovative ideas out there.

From a climate standpoint, to make a dent in our carbon emissions, EPA would need to look at existing sources. But don’t hold your breath — yesterday EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters that the agency has no plans to address existing plants.


End Note

* The proposed standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour does not rule out coal. Because the standard is averaged over 30 years, it allows for variability in emissions and provides an opportunity for technology to be added that could reduce emissions further down the road and still meet the standard. For example, say a modern coal plant with planned emissions of 1,800 pounds CO2 per megawatt hour were constructed, new, additional technology that reduced emissions within the 30-year window could work within the standard.  

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