Surprise! The Federal Government Just Did Something That Will Actually Address Climate Change

Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy’s W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011 in Thompsons, Texas. CREDIT: (Credit: AP)
Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy’s W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011 in Thompsons, Texas. CREDIT: (Credit: AP)

The Obama administration isn’t blinking as it moves to rein in the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced updated draft rules setting a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that new power plants can emit. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the National Press Club Friday morning, these are the “first uniform national limits on carbon pollution for new plants.” Currently, CO2 is totally unregulated from new and existing power plants.

“We all know this is not just about melting glaciers,” McCarthy said. “This is one of the most significant public health threats of our time.”

This is EPA’s first step under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan announced in June. The President said he wanted rules for both new and existing power plants settled by the time he leaves office. Last year, the agency offered up draft rules for public discussion, and received over 2 million public comments. EPA has now come back with revised rules that take into account this feedback from citizens and industry.


The main difference is that the new rules have separate standards for coal and natural gas plants — and they are actually fairly simple. As currently outlined:

  • All new power plants will be required to limit the amount of carbon dioxide they emit once the rules go into effect
  • New large natural gas-fired power plants will have to limit CO2 emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour (smaller plants are limited to 1,100)
  • New coal-fired plants will either have to emit only 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour over one year, or the plant can take 7 years to get average emissions down to 1,050 pounds per megawatt hour (more flexible than last year’s proposed rule)

The most technologically advanced coal plants emit 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, so these rules assume and effectively require a system to capture up to 40 percent of the carbon pollution they produce. Some plants currently under construction would likely meet the new standard, but those plants have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants and tax credits. The most advanced gas plants emit 800–850 pounds, meaning new natural gas plants can easily pass muster.

Once the rules are published in the Federal Register, the public will have another 60 days to comment, and EPA will also hold a public hearing. Industry legal and lobbying challenges are nearly certain, but the rules could be finalized by next fall.

These regulations did not just come out of nowhere — as Ms. McCarthy told a House subcommittee on Wednesday, “we are not doing anything at EPA or in the climate plan that goes outside the boundaries of what Congress has said is our mission and our authority.” In 1973, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which required the EPA to regulate air pollution that endangers “public health and welfare.” A 2007 Supreme Court decision ruled that EPA had the authority to regulate carbon dioxide under this law if it was clear that the gas endangers public health and welfare. Climate science being clear on this subject, EPA issued its “endangerment finding” in 2009. The Clean Air Act does in fact require EPA to regulate U.S. carbon emissions.

CREDIT: (Credit: EPA)
CREDIT: (Credit: EPA)

The first step was to increase vehicle fuel economy and reduce the second-largest source of U.S. carbon emissions. “With the support of the auto industry, we achieved standards that will cut carbon pollution from cars in half,” McCarthy said Friday. Cutting carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector was the next step, as electricity represents 38 percent of total carbon emissions. That’s where the initial draft rules in 2012 came from, and why the updated draft rules were released Friday.


Some worried that the updated rules would be weakened by the revisions, but as Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress said, the rules “will ensure that we will not build any more coal-fired power plants that spew unlimited amounts of carbon pollution.”

What about those power plants already spewing carbon pollution into the atmosphere? McCarthy cautioned that those rules — still being formulated and due out in June 2014 — will not be very similar to the rules for new plants. She said that existing plants would not be expected to retrofit themselves to meet the new source standards by just “plunking down” carbon capture and sequestration systems at the end. McCarthy announced a “listening tour” schedule over the next year to hear from industry, environmental groups, and the public on the existing source standards.

Fossil fuel advocates often make the case that the fossil fuel is the cheapest option, yet a new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences found that when the real cost of carbon pollution is taken into account, wind can be cheaper than coal, solar becomes a lot more economically viable, and natural gas even gets a run for its money. This happens both because the study took the social cost of carbon into account, and because the price of energy from renewable sources is dropping so quickly on its own.

McCarthy said that by 2020, the benefits of the Clean Air Act will outweigh the costs by 20 to 1.