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EPA releases proposal for limiting power plant carbon emissions

Highly anticipated proposal was meeting resistance from Republicans before its release

A coal-fired power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, set to be decommissioned in 2025.
A coal-fired power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, set to be decommissioned in 2025. (Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations Thursday to cut climate-warming emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, one of the most significant policy levers the Biden administration can use to lower domestic carbon pollution.

The regulations would strengthen standards under the Clean Air Act for new gas-fired power plants and set emissions limits for “large, frequently used” fossil-powered electrical facilities, the EPA said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is slated to formally propose the regulations, which will go through a public comment period, in a speech at the University of Maryland on Thursday morning.

“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and wellbeing,” Regan said in a statement. “EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future.”

The proposal would avoid as much as 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of about half the vehicles in the U.S. — through 2042, according to the EPA, which estimated the benefits of the proposal if implemented in its current form to be as much as $85 billion over the next 20 years.

[As EPA readies climate rule, Obama and Trump eras linger]

Placing the rule into effect would mark the first time the U.S. has implemented a federal climate regulation specifically for power plants, collectively the second-most polluting sector of the national economy behind transportation, and a significant step in meeting the U.S. target to cut its carbon pollution in half by 2030.

Congressional Republicans have in recent weeks bristled over the impending rule, which industry groups and Republican attorneys general may challenge in the courts, as they did an Obama-era climate regulation for power plants.

The Biden administration set a target of shifting all the electricity in the U.S. to zero-emission sources, like wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower, by 2035.

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Regan and Ali Zaidi, a White House climate adviser, said the administration is on the proper trajectory to meet U.S. climate objectives.

“We are absolutely in line with the president’s goal,” Regan told reporters. “The power sector’s just one piece of the puzzle.” 

In 2021, there were 269 coal-fired power plants nationwide, according to Energy Information Administration figures, down from 589 in 2011.

The coal fleet has dwindled in number in recent years due to competition from inexpensive gas — the largest fuel source for America’s electric-generating plants, responsible for about 38 percent of electricity — coupled with competition from renewables and compliance costs of environmental regulations.

Varying standards

The proposal sets different standards for different subcategories of power plants, taking into consideration how often the facilities operate, how long they are scheduled to stay running and how efficiently they make electricity.

How power plants make emissions cuts will be up to the private sector and vary by location, said Regan, who added that some power plants will likely be closed due to the rule.

“This is really a decision that will be made company by company and state by state,” Regan said. “We will see some retirements within the system.”

Agency models forecast the rule would have “negligible” effects on electricity prices, Regan said.

Under the proposed rule, which is not yet public, plant operators will be able to use less-established technology, like carbon capture and hydrogen, to meet the emissions-reduction requirements.

The 2021 public works law and 2022 climate, health and tax law set aside tens of billions of dollars for carbon capture and hydrogen research.

Zaidi said the U.S. has become a “magnet” for low- and zero-carbon energy investment because of these laws, adding that more than 500 power utilities in the country have pledged to cut emissions.

“The focus here is on tackling pollution,” Zaidi said.

The proposal made ripples on Capitol Hill before it came out.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said Wednesday he would oppose all EPA nominees that need Senate confirmation, in part due to the impending rule for power plants.

“This administration is determined to advance its radical climate agenda and has made it clear they are hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal- and gas-fueled power plants out of existence, no matter the cost to energy security and reliability,” Manchin said. 

The National Mining Association, a lobbying group for coal and hard-rock mining companies, preemptively criticized the rule Wednesday.

“Each one of the rules coming from the Biden administration’s EPA is designed to make it impossible for states and utilities to make decisions based on the merits of what keeps the lights on and electricity inflation low, forcing them to make decisions solely based on the EPA’s desire to end coal-powered generation in the United States,” the group said in a statement.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 2022 in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that the EPA does not have the prerogative under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions from power plants through a method of capping pollution because Congress did not explicitly authorize it to do so.

Asked how that ruling affected the agency in writing the rule, Regan said he was confident: “We feel really good that we are within those bounds.”

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