Digging out from carbon dioxide emissions

New EPA rules on power plants only confirm energy industry’s move away from coal

The Scherer Power Plant in Georgia.
Photo courtesy of TinRoof Marketing

In announcing the first carbon dioxide emissions standards for new coal-fired power plants on Friday, Sept. 20, the Environmental Protection Agency in some sense brought to a close a 10-year struggle by environmental groups to see the agency regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Power plants are the largest single contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Were the 100 power plants in the U.S. that emit the most carbon dioxide, two of which are in Colorado, replaced with zero emissions sources, carbon emissions for the nation would be reduced to 11 percent below 1990 levels.

“Climate change is one of the most significant public health challenges of our time. By taking common-sense action to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, we can slow the effects of climate change and fulfill our obligation to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our children,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a press release. “These standards will also spark the innovation we need to build the next generation of power plants, helping grow a more sustainable clean energy economy.”

Eighty-four percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution is carbon dioxide, and power plants account for one third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. The EPA has previously limited the arsenic, mercury and lead pollution power plants can emit, but until the new standards, there were no national limits on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants could emit, according to the EPA.

The proposal outlines standards that would limit large natural gas-fired turbines to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour and coal-fired units as well as small natural-gas-fired turbines to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

It’s great, environmental activists say, but in some ways, it’s way behind.

“I guess I kind of think of the rule that just happened as, when you figure out you’re in a hole, the first thing you should do is to stop digging,” says Travis Madsen, senior program manager for global warming solutions with Environment Colorado and co-author of a report recently released by the agency on pollution from power plants. “There really aren’t that many coal-fired power plants that are proposed for construction right now. A lot of that has to do with the fact that fracking has made cheap supply of natural gas readily available, so a lot of power companies have been building gas plants. And at the same time, renewable energy has been taking off at a rapid pace, especially wind and solar. So the practical impact of this rule, it’s mostly to give the power industry some certainty about where they should invest their money in the future. … It’s hard to predict the future as far as how much emissions that this rule is actually going to prevent. Mostly, it’s a clear signal to the power industry that they have to take global warming into account when they’re making investments in the future and that’s really important.”

Existing power plants produce on average 2,180 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, according to Environment Colorado, and some produce more than 3,000 pounds. The new rules could make it prohibitively expensive to build a coal-fired power plant. Any new coal-fired power plants would have to utilize carbon capture and sequestration technology, Madsen says. Whether that violates the mandate that the EPA’s restrictions of pollution must not be unduly expensive is one that’s likely to be decided in court.

“Ideally the standards would be even tighter, but the 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour is high enough that it will probably make it impossible to build the same kind of dirty, coal-fired power plants that have been fueling the climate crisis and polluting communities for the last 100 years in this country, so that’s fairly strong. … It’s a big step in the right direction,” says Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, an organization campaigning to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 400 parts per million to 350 parts per million. “Just five years ago or so, the coal industry here in the U.S. was set to build 150 new coal-fired power plants, and it looks probably like none of those will be able to be built through a combination of incredible activism on the ground but also finally some real tough regulation coming from the federal government, so that’s an exciting step forward.”

Just days before the EPA announcement — in a strategically timed choice — Environment Colorado released a report detailing the 50 most polluting power plants in the United States. Power plants in total are responsible for 41 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution produced in the United States. The 50 power plants with the highest carbon dioxide emissions contributed 30 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 from power production, while providing 16 percent of the nation’s electricity. The 500 plants with the highest carbon dioxide emissions — of nearly 6,000 electricity generating facilities in the U.S. — produce 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted through power production.

The top 10 polluting power plants emit as much carbon dioxide as all the passenger vehicles in New York and California — or as much as the energyrelated emissions for Venezuela.

In Colorado, as across the country, 41 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions come from power plants. The top five plants for carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for 26.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, and 28 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions for the state. The power plant in Craig, operated by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., is the 55th most carbon-polluting plant in the U.S., emitting the equivalent of 1.87 million passenger vehicles in 2011, or 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The other four power plants with the highest carbon dioxide emissions in Colorado — Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo, Cherokee Generating Station in Denver, Hayden Generating Station in Hayden in northwest Colorado and Pawnee Generating Station in Brush in northeast Colorado — are operated by the Public Service Company of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy.

Xcel points to the Comanche Generating Station’s recently added third unit, which began construction in 2004, as an example of cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions at coal plants.

Because the EPA standards released apply only to new power plants and not to existing structures, none of those power plants, which began construction in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, will be affected by them.

“Though we are still reviewing the rule, we don’t believe it affects any of our plans for new power plants,” Mark Stutz, Xcel’s senior media representative, said in an emailed statement. “However, we are concerned with the potential long-term implications of this proposed rule for our customers and the nation’s energy system as the rule makes it very unlikely that any new coal plants will be built in the United States.”

Xcel’s clean energy strategy in Colorado has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent since 2005 and is projected to reach a 30 percent reduction by 2020.

Nearly a dozen states, including Colorado, have implemented or are implementing market-based programs to reduce carbon pollution. More than 25 have energy efficiency targets, and 35 have renewable energy targets, according to the EPA. Colorado’s Clean Air Clean Jobs Act has been contested in court as too costly a burden to place on Colorado’s ratepayers.

And it’s with states, and Congress, Xcel Energy argues, that measures to govern climate change should remain.

“Xcel Energy believes Congress is the appropriate body to implement well-designed policies that promote clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a flexible, cost-effective manner,” Stutz says. “Overall, effective climate policy will give states the ability to rely on clean energy programs and will reward early action that has already reduced emissions across the country.”

The standards from the EPA for new power plants come 10 years after the agency released an official statement declaring that the Clean Air Act did not authorize the agency to regulate global warming pollution. When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the directive it gave to the EPA’s administrator was to oversee emissions from motor vehicles. Pressed by a 1999 lawsuit to regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the EPA responded in 2003 that the Clean Air Act didn’t authorize the EPA to address global climate change, nor would it be wise to engage with greenhouse gas emission standards at that time. The agency pointed to a National Research Council report that identified areas of scientific uncertainty on the mechanisms of climate change and its effects on human health and the environment.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the agency did have that authority, could not decline to regulate greenhouse gas pollution and was in fact required to determine if greenhouse gases were contributing to global warming and thereby endangering public health and welfare. Two years later, the agency concluded that carbon dioxide was a public health risk because of global warming and in 2010, released a plan to release new performance standards and emissions guidelines for fossil fuel-fired power plants.

“In many ways, these regulations should have been passed a decade ago, so we’re still playing catch-up, I think, in terms of what’s needed both to address the crisis and to really help protect communities in the U.S. from local pollution from these power plants,” Henn says. “Coal is already falling behind fast, and it’s a combination through some incredible activism work on the ground and the natural gas boom, which is taking place across the U.S. which has really changed the whole economics when it comes to the coal industry. So while it’s still incredibly important to have these regulations in place, this is really dealing with a dying industry. … The real challenge is taking on big oil, which continues to spend upwards of $100 million a day looking for new fossil fuel reserves, often more dangerous and extreme forms of energy like the tar sands.”

Natural gas has been couched as the solution for coal’s carbon dioxide emissions — Colorado’s Clean Air Clean Jobs Act calls for taking coal-fired power plants off line and replacing them with natural gas-fired power plants. But natural gas presents its own issues.

“Leaks of methane during both the drilling and the transportation process can easily cancel out whatever benefits are gained from having reduced emissions of CO2 simply because methane is so, so potent,” McCall says. Fracking to secure natural gas needs regulating, she says, but ultimately, power needs to be provided by clean and renewable sources.

The EPA has “initiated outreach” to stakeholders to develop emissions guidelines for existing power plants, which are expected to be issued by June 1. Those debates are expected to be more controversial and see more pressure from industry lobbying groups.

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