Biden takes aim at power plant emissions after earlier rules blocked


The Biden administration has unveiled new proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, almost a year after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier effort.

Under the rules announced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, coal- and gas-fired generators would be subject to new standards that would mark the first time the US government has directly regulated carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

The standards lean on two technologies that have not yet proven to be economical: carbon capture and storage and hydrogen fuel that is produced with low and zero emissions.

“The public health and environmental benefits of this proposed rule will be tremendous,” said Michael Regan, the EPA administrator.

But the emissions impact of the rule — carefully tailored to survive another court challenge — is likely to be limited. The EPA said the proposal as it relates to coal and new gas-fired power plants would avoid up to 617mn tonnes of CO₂ in total by the end of 2042. That is less than half of the 1.5bn tonnes emitted by the electric power sector last year alone.

Thursday’s announcement follows a Supreme Court ruling last summer that curtailed the agency’s ability to regulate emissions from power plants. The high court, in a 6-3 opinion, struck down an effort from the Obama administration to limit emissions from power plants. While the rule had never taken effect, the decision declared Congress had not given the EPA sweeping authorities to regulate emissions from the power sector.

President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan was blocked before it could be enacted. A replacement rule issued by the Trump administration, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, was also halted in court and sent back to the EPA. The agency said it was scrapping that rule outright.

Regan said the fresh proposals followed the “traditional approach” of the EPA’s rulemaking authorities under the Clean Air Act and would not trigger the same legal issues addressed by the Supreme Court.

The EPA said the new limits would “require ambitious reductions in carbon pollution based on proven and cost-effective control technologies that can be applied directly to power plants”. In a statement, it added that it has undertaken analysis showing power companies could implement the standards with a “negligible impact” on electricity prices.

The ruling was welcomed by environmental and climate advocates. “The EPA’s proposed rule sends an unequivocal signal to American power plant operators: the era of unlimited carbon pollution is over,” said Dan Lashof, US director, World Resources Institute.

The coal industry was quick to condemn it. “Mandating [the use of carbon capture] in a rulemaking before this technology is technically and fully economically demonstrated is nothing more than unlawful showmanship reinforcing a destructive agenda,” the National Mining Association said.

Joe Manchin of the coal-rich state of West Virginia, who is the Democratic chair of the Senate energy and natural resources committee, said he would block every Biden administration nominee to the EPA on account of the rule.

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

The US has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent to 52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The US’s recent Inflation Reduction Act legislation, which offers close to $370bn in green subsidies to help drive clean energy investment, puts the country on track for a 31 per cent to 44 per cent reduction, according to research from Rhodium Group.

The remaining reduction in emissions relies on the US successfully passing federal regulations to limit power plants’ emissions and decrease those from cars and trucks.

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