EPA Caps Coal Power Plant Emissions

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The EPA has published a rule first proposed in September that would cap carbon emissions on new power plants and make construction of the kind of coal-powered plants currently in operation across much of the US illegal. The initiative is one of the most substantive regulations to come out of President Obama’s climate change speech, delivered in June of last year. Joanna M. Foster has the story at ThinkProgress:

The regulation mandates that all future coal plants can emit just 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. An average US coal plant currently dumps over 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every megawatt-hour of energy it produces. The rule also covers new natural-gas fired plants. Natural gas plants, 100 megawatts or larger, will be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, while smaller plants could emit no more than 1,100 pounds.

Modern combined-cycle natural gas plants are essentially already able to meet this standard. The rule, will however, make it very difficult for new coal-fired power plants to be built in the United States. Utilities will only be able to build new coal plants if they are able to capture 20 to 40 percent of the carbon they emit and store it underground. This technology is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Many coal advocates in Congress and fossil-fuel industry leaders have argued that the standard is designed to nix new coal plant construction, claiming that the CCS technology needed to meet the standard simply isn’t ready for commercial deployment.

This may not be the end of coal in America — Southern Company is currently finishing a coal plant in Mississippi that will capture 65 percent of its carbon pollution. And this rule alone will not mean the success of the Obama administration’s goal to “reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from their 2005 levels by the end of this decade.” It’s only a small step in cutting back emissions to levels that will avert catastrophic climate change, and its effect may be minimized by the cheap price of natural gas, which was already becoming a more popular fossil fuel among utilities.

But this rule will help create a future energy economy cleaner than the one we currently have. As we noted in September, the top 100 dirtiest power plants in America produce 3.2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions — or roughly the same amount as all passenger vehicles in the US. Ninety-eight of those plants burn coal.

The EPA plans to release rules capping emissions on existing power plants this June.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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