The administration of US President Joe Biden has proposed an original regulation that aims to limit the emissions of the energy sector in the United States in the next two decades. If it survives the legal challenges that are sure to come from power plant operators and others, the rule could accelerate an ongoing shift to renewable energy in the country. It might also help jump-start the use of a long-stalled — and controversial — technology that allows utilities to capture and bury carbon emissions from power plants fired by fossil fuels.
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The long-awaited regulation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), released on May 11, lays out a variety of proposed requirements for power plants fueled by natural gas and coal, which are currently responsible for more than 1.5 billion tons carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted annually in the United States—about a quarter of the country’s climate pollution. Large coal-fired power plants planning to operate after 2040 would have to use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology to reduce their emissions by 90%, for example; large gas-fired plants can deploy CCS or transition to clean hydrogen (produced with minimal carbon emissions) as a fuel source. The EPA is accepting comments on the proposal for 60 days.
Overall, the agency says the rule could limit U.S. CO emissions2 with more than one billion tons by 2042 – equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Japan – while racking up as much as US$ 85 billion in climate and health benefits. “The public health and environmental benefits of this proposed rule will be enormous,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at a May 10 news conference, and it will have minimal impacts on electricity prices.
The power plant regulations come on the heels of an ambitious rule proposed by the Biden administration to reduce air pollution from vehicles. Many scientists and environmentalists hoped it would put a dent in the administration’s commitment to decarbonize the US energy sector by 2035, but the regulation would allow fossil fuel power plants to continue emitting beyond that date.
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“This is a good step and a good framework, long overdue, but very welcome,” said David Doniger, who heads the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based advocacy group. City. Still, Doniger says his group will push the EPA to implement stricter measures in the final regulation.
Whether the rule holds up to court challenges will depend partly on the argument that CCS is ready for prime time. Many experts say it is – especially with new tax incentives intended to lower the cost of the technology. “The biggest barrier to widespread use of CCS in the energy sector today is economics,” says Howard Herzog, an engineer who studies CCS at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Inside the fence line
The EPA proposal follows a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last June, which held that the agency had overstepped its authority under former President Barack Obama by creating broad regulations that would affect the entire energy industry. would have pushed towards cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar. In contrast, the new EPA rule focuses on emissions reduction that can be achieved “within the fence line” at individual power plants, with the best available technologies. These include CCS.
This is a more conventional regulatory approach to curbing pollution than what the Obama administration tried. It also fits with the Supreme Court’s decision last year, which recognized the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions at the scale of individual power plants, says Julie McNamara, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. an advisory group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
One of the core questions will be whether CCS is an economically viable technology—or whether the new EPA rule is actually designed to push electric utilities away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner energy sources. Regan addressed this concern directly at the press conference. He acknowledged that some coal-fired power plants would close as a result of the rule, but added that “this is really a decision that will be made state by state, company by company”.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has already issued a statement expressing displeasure. The new rule, he said, “seems designed simply to scare more coal-fired power plants into retirement”. West Virginia has a large coal industry and helped take the case against the EPA to the Supreme Court last year. “We expect to win again in court against this out-of-control agency,” he said.
McNamara says the current EPA proposal is just one piece of a larger puzzle that includes other regulations on hazardous pollutants as well as massive public health incentives for low-carbon energy. The question for regulators, utilities and communities will be what makes the most sense: invest in CCS technologies to extend the life of a fossil fuel industry with huge impacts on climate and public health, or invest in clean energy? “We feel that clean energy will be the superior choice,” says McNamara.
Although CCS technology has been demonstrated at only a handful of power plants around the world, interest is growing. This is particularly the case in countries, such as China, that are heavily dependent on coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, according to Jarad Daniels, who leads the Global CCS Institute, an advocacy group based in Melbourne, Australia, with offices in Washington DC. CCS is also advancing in sectors such as cement, steel and chemicals.
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EPA officials say the technology is ready to be implemented at a reasonable cost — or even a profit — depending on the plant. Many scientists and environmentalists agree. “If youare asking, “why hasn’t this technology been used more in the past,” it’s because there is no regulation, and it’s cheaper to dump emissions into the atmosphere for free,” says Sunday.
In a spending bill enacted last year, the US Congress boosted federal incentives for CCS in the power and other industrial sectors to US$85 per ton of CO22, which experts say usually covers the cost of capturing the gas and pumping it underground. However, economic modeling by multiple groups suggests this is still not enough to convince most electric utilities to embrace the technology, given the falling costs of renewable energy sources such as solar.
“The economics only pencil out for CCS in very specific settings,” says Ben King, an energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, a consulting firm based in New York City. But clean energy sources could face their own challenges in scaling up quickly, due to potential bottlenecks with licensing, securing sites for facilities and delivering power over long-distance electrical transmission lines. An analysis by the Rhodium Group suggests that regulatory requirements may still allow CCS to gain a foothold in the energy sector.
How things play out will vary per plant. Electric utilities are likely to choose to close older coal-fired power plants, for example, while some new gas-fired plants that run frequently could be candidates for a CCS retrofit, says John Thompson, an energy analyst at the Clean Air Task Force. , an advocacy group based in Boston, Massachusetts. The scales can be tipped by a combination of economic incentives that lower costs, and regulations that require action, he adds.
“What you get is synergies between the rule that says, ‘You’re going to do this,’ and the tax credit that says, ‘This is not very expensive,'” says Thompson. “The potential is there for deep reductions in emissions.”