How The EPA Could Cut Carbon Emissions Even More Than We Thought By 2020

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s upcoming carbon rules for existing power plants could cut even more emissions than previously thought, according to a new analysis.

Back in 2013, a long legal battle over the Clean Air Act culminated with EPA releasing rules that will cut carbon dioxide emissions from new coal and natural gas plants. In June of this year, the agency will release similar draft rules for already existing power plants, and then finalize them by June 2015.

But the legal language of the Clean Air Act gives EPA different scopes of power for new versus existing plants. The agency can regulate the former pretty directly, but must partner with the states to regulate the latter. Essentially, EPA sets up the broad system, and then each state must submit its compliance plan by July 2016.

To that end, the agency has been taking public comments on how to best design that system. And arguably one of the best plans was submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In March of 2013, the NRDC ran its framework through the same computer model that EPA and other government agencies use, which showed the plan would cut carbon emissions up to 24 percent from their current levels by 2020 — the “Moderate” scenarios in the graph above. But since then, a lot of the data from the Energy Information Agency and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — which NRDC built its proposal on — has been updated. Based on those new numbers, NRDC re-ran its initial projections and added a set of more aggressive targets — the “Ambitious” scenarios above — and found the reduction in carbon emissions could hit 30 percent by 2020. (Or 31 percent if the production tax credit for wind is extended.)


CREDIT: Natural Resources Defense Council

Specifically, the “Moderate” scenarios would set an emission rate target of 1,500 pounds per megawatt hour for coal plants, and 1,000 for natural gas plants. That would then ratchet down to 1,200 for coal in 2030. For the “Ambitious” targets, coal would get 1,400 pounds per megawatt hour and natural gas would get 700, and those would ratchet down to 900 and 500 in 2030, respectively.

According to NRDC, they added the Ambitious scenarios because “the cases based on the moderate emission rate targets showed minimal to low compliance costs.” In plain English, when they ran the simulations, meeting the original emissions targets caused the power industry very little pain — which suggests more aggressive targets are entirely do-able.

The really interesting thing the NRDC plan does is it allows each state to take the targets for all of its individual power plants and average them into one overall target for the state. Then, as long as the state’s total emission rate holds to that threshold, it would be in compliance with the plan, even if individual plants were emitting higher or lower than their ostensible targets. Each state’s requirements would also be adjusted according to how much their energy mix relies on coal versus natural gas. How the formulas would work is laid out in NRDC’s report.

The language of the Clean Air Act unfortunately doesn’t allow EPA to do anything as ambitious as a national cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax to cut carbon emissions from existing plants. But the idea behind NRDC’s plan is to mimic the market-friendly forces of those approaches as much as possible within the Clean Air Act’s framework. Power plant operators and industries would not only have the flexibility to mix and match emission rates from various plants to hit the overall target — they would also have plenty of options to pick from in how they reduce emissions. They could change their operating schedules, make more use of energy efficiency, build up their renewable energy capacity, adopt carbon capture technology, or take advantage of other new technologies that allow coal especially to be burned more cleanly.

States already involved in regional cap-and-trade systems could use those setups to meet their obligations. And experts have also suggested that state-based carbon taxes could be used to comply with EPA’s rules as well.

Right now the White House hopes to cut the country’s overall carbon emissions 17 percent below their 2005 level by 2020, and EPA’s regulations for new and existing power plants are the central part of that push.