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Written by Elizabeth Jones   
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Thursday, 05 July 2012

Power Plant Standards

Power plants are currently the largest singular sources of carbon pollution in the United States.1 Each year in the U.S. more than 1,500 power plants release approximately 2.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air.2 Doctors and scientists have repeatedly warned us that this kind of carbon pollution imposes staggering health costs and contributes to extreme weather.3 Yet there have never been any uniform national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants are able to emit. (If you are interested, check to see how much your local power plants pollute here.)

On March 27 of this year (2012), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took some first steps towards setting emissions regulation standards. This came in the form of a released and much-anticipated rule limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.4 The proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act will set national limits on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. The new rule requires that any new power plant in the United States with a capacity greater than 25 megawatt electric (MWe) built can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour (lb CO2/MWh).5 To put these numbers in perspective, you should know that most modern natural gas plants already meet this standard. Conventional coal plants, on the other hand, average about 1,800 pounds per megawatt-hour.6 The new rule effectively means that any new stationary source will need to be a natural gas fired plant, a renewable energy facility, or a coal plant built with advanced carbon capture technology.

Legal Background of the New Rule

In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that greenhouse gases (GHGs) meet the definition of “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act.7 This decision consequently assigned the EPA the task of determining whether GHGs pose a threat to public health and welfare.8 On December 15, 2009, the EPA found that the current and projected concentrations of greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.9 The EPA then proposed a schedule for establishing greenhouse gas standards under the Clean Air Act for fossil fuel fired power plants and petroleum refineries.10

What Does the New Standard Mean?

Given that 2012 is an election year, new GHG regulations will certainly draw criticisms from political candidates who do not believe in climate change or who are averse to government regulation. However, the standard for new power plants is more notable for what it WILL NOT require rather than any alleged “overreaching.” Here are a few reasons why this development should be relatively uncontroversial:
  • Existing power plants are not affected. This EPA regulation does not apply to any existing power plants, or any plants that will begin construction over the next 12 months.

  • The development of new coal-fired plants was steeply declining even before this rule. New coal-fired plants do not make sound business sense in an era of inexpensive natural gas, rising coal prices, increasingly cost-competitive renewable energy sources, declining consumer demand, and strong community opposition.11
As EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson put it, the new regulations are “a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy.”12

When Will Existing Power-Plant GHG Emissions Be Regulated?

In late March of 2012, EPA Administrator Jackson told reporters that at this time the EPA has “no plans to address existing plants.”13 Existing power plants emit about a third of the nation’s total emissions, which is more than 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year,14 so regulating these plants will be a crucial next step toward reducing GHG emissions in the U.S.

Future regulation of existing plants does fall within EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. For certain pollutants, CAA section 111(d)(1) requires the EPA to prescribe regulations for state plans covering “existing source[s].”15 However, due to the politically charged nature of this issue, it seems that action on existing sources will not happen any time soon.16 Be sure to make your voice heard! The EPA will seek comments and information, including via public hearings, as it completes the new power plant rulemaking process.

Smoke Coming From Industral Plant 17

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 05 July 2012 )