Despite Hard Push From Industry, New Coal Plants Could See Serious Carbon Restrictions

CREDIT: (Credit: AP
CREDIT: (Credit: AP

Despite a massive lobbying campaign by the coal and utility industry, Americans can expect serious measures to rein in carbon pollution from new power plants, Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday. The new rules are scheduled to be released on September 20.

Sources “familiar with the plan” said that the rules would essentially require a new coal plant to install equipment to capture some of the usual greenhouse gas pollutants that churn out of every coal plant on Earth. A previous regulatory effort in 2012 set a single threshold of 1,100 pounds of CO2 released per megawatt hour for coal and natural gas plants. The utility industry told the White House last week that even brand-new commercial coal plants cannot meet that pollution limit. Lobbyists from Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, and American Electric Power made the case to the Office of Management and Budget that new technology would be required to even partially drop coal plant carbon emissions. They argued that the policy is a mistake and would function as a ban on new coal plants. Newer, efficient natural gas plants can already meet the 1,100 limit.

These carbon rules follow a long series of findings, decisions, and delays over the last four years, and will be the first national regulations to control the currently-unimpeded flow of carbon pollution from power plants. In America, those emissions comprise a disproportionate amount of the greenhouse gases emitted by the power sector — a sector that is responsible for almost 40 percent of total national emissions.

The New Source Performance Standards have been in the works since 2009, when Environmental Protection Agency followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA and issued its Endangerment Finding on carbon dioxide. This concluded that CO2 is a pollutant and therefore should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Nearly three years after this, EPA released draft rules for new coal plants. The coal and gas industry (and their allies) pushed back hard enough that EPA agreed to revise the rules. Some legal experts also questioned establishing a single standard for coal- and gas-fired plants.

In June, President Obama directed the EPA to expeditiously release carbon regulations for power plants when he unveiled his Climate Action Plan. Rules on existing power plants — likely to be much more contentious than the new source rules — are expected next year.

Bloomberg reports that the rules will allow utilities to phase in the carbon capturing technology over time, and will be structured differently than the initial versions. White House officials are reviewing the rules which will not be final until the September 20 release.

There’s a some odd dissonance here on the concept of clean coal. The main coal industry group is ACCCE — the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. They have been advocating the idea that coal is clean for years, and that the industry has been investing in clean coal technology, making things even better. The federal government, including the Obama administration, has also made some serious investments in clean coal research for more than a decade.

Now a very reasonable carbon regulation gives the coal industry the opportunity to rise to the challenge. It can use the billions of dollars of public and private investment in clean coal to actually make their product clean. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, backed up by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, billions of research dollars, and the accelerating reality of climate science, is calling coal’s bluff. The industry’s answer will be fascinating.