President Obama Can Dramatically and Cost-Effectively Cut Carbon Pollution from Power Plants Using the Clean Air Act

Posted on June 7, 2013 by Peter Lehner

On the night of his re-election, President Obama told the nation that he wanted “our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In the past year, we’ve seen extreme weather, fueled by carbon pollution, cost hundreds of American lives and nearly $100 billion in damage across the country. Yet right now we have no national standards to control carbon pollution from the biggest emitters—the 1500 existing power plants which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. NRDC has developed a plan for how the President could use his existing authority under the Clean Air Act to cut this climate-changing pollution from power plants, quickly and cost-effectively.

In a 2011 Supreme Court decision, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the court ruled that it is the EPA’s responsibility to curb carbon pollution from power plants, new and existing. Carbon pollution limits for new power plants have been proposed and the EPA needs to make them final.  But the step that will make the biggest difference is cutting pollution from existing power plants. Under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA could set state-specific standards for average emissions from existing power plants based on each state’s current energy mix. Then states and power plant owners would have broad flexibility in deciding how to meet those standards, using a range of cost-effective measures and technologies.

Not all states line up at the same starting point when it comes to carbon emissions—some are heavily coal dependent, while others rely more on lower-carbon fuels and clean, renewable energy. Developing state-specific standards will give heavily coal-reliant states more realistic targets, while still moving them toward a cleaner energy supply. In addition, states and power plant owners can keep costs down by using a variety of measures to achieve compliance, whether it’s installing a new boiler in an old coal-fired plant, or investing in a home-weatherization program to reduce energy demand. These efficiency measures will help keep energy bills low and also create thousands of jobs that can’t be outsourced.

All in all, NRDC’s flexible, cost-effective proposal can achieve a 26 percent reduction (from 2005 levels) in carbon pollution from power plants by 2020, according to modeling done by the same firm the EPA uses for much of its air pollution modeling. The cost of compliance, about $4 billion, is comparatively low, and is vastly outweighed by the benefits--$25 to $60 billion in savings. These benefits come in the form of 3,600 lives saved, and thousands of asthma attacks and other illness prevented each year due to less air pollution, as well as the value of reducing carbon pollution by 560 million tons. This is twice the reduction that will be achieved by clean car standards.

The President has been very clear about the need to do something to curb global warming. This cost-effective proposal could be his biggest opportunity to take decisive action. He can dramatically reduce carbon pollution from power plants--while creating major health benefits and jobs--using his existing authority under the Clean Air Act.

Will we ever have a national energy policy?

Posted on April 18, 2012 by Michael Rodburg

USEPA continues its program of death by a thousand cuts to the coal industry, but does the agency’s actions reflect a coherent national energy policy? On March 27, 2012 the EPA issued its new source performance standards for new power plants limiting CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour of produced electricity to a level about that of state-of-the-art, combined-cycle, gas-fired power plants. Importantly, industry observers claim that the level is far below what the best coal-fired power plants can achieve at least without commercially unavailable and quite expensive carbon capture technology.  While certain exceptions within the rule preclude stating that EPA has banned the use of coal in new plants, it comes pretty close.  That reminds me of an often repeated statement of an old client of mine back in the 1970’s whose recycled solvent fuel business and the EPA just didn’t get along that well—he would remark that “if coal were discovered today, EPA would never allow it to be burned.”  He appears to have been ahead of his time.

Of course one winner in this is natural gas.  With new sources of natural gas from shale and fracking having driven natural gas prices downward relative to coal and oil, old King Coal has been facing a distinct price disadvantage for years.  EPA had further disadvantaged coal and oil as a result of last year’s cross-state air pollution rule.  Last December, EPA’s MATS rule (mercury and air toxics standards) for power plants further adversely affected coal. Is EPA’s latest effort merely the coup de grace?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a coal apologist.  One need not be a fan or sworn enemy of either natural gas or coal, of free markets or environmental regulation, to realize that something is going on that is important to our national energy situation with no one particularly in charge.  After all, coal mining, transportation and existing uses drive tens of thousands of jobs and the economy of such disadvantaged states as West Virginia.  Presidents and presidential candidates have decried our lack of a national energy policy for 30 years with meager results. 

My point is otherwise: What does the overall national interest—economic, energy and environment—have to say about the relative use of coal vs. natural gas vs. petroleum vs. nuclear power?  Should EPA’s rule, based on concerns for global warming and not immediate health and safety, trump everything else?  Should we increase our reliance on natural gas at the expense of coal?  Should we be at the mercy of market forces without regard to our long term, sustainable future?  Should we simply use a bumper sticker (“Drill, baby, drill”) instead of reasoned policy? 

What passes as policy is a series of regulatory silos each with its own raison d’etre—FERC, NRC, EPA, DOE. And, of course, Congress, some of whose members can’t wait to kill alternative energy policies (solar), decry subsidization for renewables while rejecting as nearly immoral attempts to eliminate out of date tax subsidies for oil and gas (Subsidies at today’s prices?  Give me a break!). EPA’s new rule, in isolation from everything else, is merely another example of our lack of a coherent national policy on energy.  It may be a good environmental rule, but is it good for the country?