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As one of the first steps in the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed carbon emissions rule on Friday, September 20. The proposal would effectively require all new coal-fired power plants to employ carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. Environmentalists hail the proposal as a vital step in mitigating climate change, but industry groups plan to challenge the rule’s legality.
Power plants currently account for approximately one third [PDF] of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed EPA rule addresses this problem by capping power plants’ carbon emissions at 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. Because the current average power plant emits 1,768 pounds per megawatt-hour, this standard is basically impossible for plants to meet without either switching to natural gas power – which releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal – or installing CCS technology.
CCS is a process by which excess carbon dioxide emissions are captured and compressed at the site, transported via pipeline, and stored underground in geological formations. The technology has recently been regarded as an essential device in the greenhouse gas reduction toolbox, as it promises to reduce power plants’ emissions by up to 90%.
But this planet-saving technology isn’t cheap – and in this case, fossil-fueled utility companies are incensed over more than just the price tag of CCS installation. To date, no plant in the world has yet deployed CCS commercially. The industry argues that EPA is not authorized to force technology that has not yet been demonstrated as economically or technologically feasible.
The landmark 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA held that greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles qualify as an “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, thus necessitating EPA regulation [PDF]. This holding prompted the agency to further regulate stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Under Clean Air Act authority, the EPA released the first draft of the controversial CCS proposal in April 2012, and received almost 3 million comments. In response, the new rule more thoroughly argues that CCS is, in fact, a demonstrated technology, pointing to a 75% complete project in Kemper County, Mississippi and another in Saskatchewan, Canada currently constructing CCS. (The Mississippi plant was scheduled to open in May, but due to funding issues, the completion date has recently been delayed.)
Nonetheless, environmentalists and EPA lawyers are confident the proposal is comfortably within legal limits, as the Clean Air Act does not limit agency rules to widely deployed technology. The EPA has previously issued technology-forcing regulations to ensure progress. For example, Congress granted the EPA broad authority to regulate vehicle emissions in the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act. This led manufacturers to install catalytic converters to their vehicle fleets by 1975, a technology the auto industry similarly argued was not economically feasible.
Additionally, EPA justifies the new rule based on recent power plant trends: the fracking boom has stimulated most new power plants to opt for more cost-efficient natural gas. Because so few planned plants would utilize coal to begin with, the new rule will not impose significant CCS installation costs on the industry, EPA argues.
The outcome of this threatened litigation is crucial to EPA’s long-term goals to reduce power plant emissions, as the agency will issue regulations for existing plants next year. If industry groups succeed, EPA’s green technology-forcing capabilities will be significantly stunted, threatening the ongoing success of the Obama Climate Action Plan.
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