Biden’s EPA proposes tough new carbon emission limits on ‘dirtiest’ power plants
The Biden administration is promoting an ambitious plan to drastically reduce coal and natural gas pollution for the next two decades, saying that it could save up to $85 billion in climate change mitigation and public health costs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says its new rule, released Thursday, is based on “cost-effective and available control technologies,” and will avoid as much as 617 million metric tons of CO2 emissions through 2042, the equivalent of reducing the annual emissions of 137 million passenger vehicles. The agency claims it will also prevent hundreds of premature deaths and hospital visits, thousands of asthma attacks and relieve the burden of environmental justice communities disproportionately afflicted by power plant pollution. In 2022 alone, the electric power sector accounted for about 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions.
The new regulations require coal-fired power plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2030, and natural gas power plants must eliminate the same level of pollution by 2035.
The new rule would force utilities to shut down power plants that cannot reach the lower emissions standards within the aggressive timeline. Nevertheless, utilities can avoid most of the new pollution requirements if they close those plants by the early 2030s.
According to the EPA, the proposed rules will build on the historic investments in clean energy made under the Biden administration and for an electric power industry that has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 36% since 2005.
“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and wellbeing,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future.”
In Georgia, the EPA rules would affect the state’s largest utility company, Georgia Power, and the 10 fossil fuel facilities including two coal-fired plants and eight methane gas-fired power plants.
Three of the nation’s top 100 dirtiest power plants were located in Georgia in 2020, and the state’s top 10 violators produced as much carbon dioxide as 7.7 million cars in a year, according to Environment Georgia.
Environment Georgia State Director Jennette Gayer said she urges the EPA to have these new stricter emissions standards also required for power plants that run irregularly.
“The dirtiest fossil fuel plants in Georgia have an outsized impact on our carbon emissions and our global warming pollution emissions compared to how much energy they actually create,” she said. ”I think this is a really great and important step in the right direction to addressing that reality.
“We already have experience in Georgia with other ways to generate energy that are cheaper and do not create carbon emissions, so let’s double down on those,” Gayer said.
Georgia Power’s parent company, Southern Co., declined to comment until it had more time to review the proposed new regulations.
The extensive guidelines released on Thursday will also take some time to digest for the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents investor-owned electric companies that provide electricity to 220 million Americans.
This is the third time in nine years that the EPA is proposing different regulations on power plant greenhouse emissions under a provision in the Clean Air Act.
The Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan — intended to cut carbon emissions from power plants — was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Trump administration’s much-criticized replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, derided as a “tortured series of misreadings” of the U.S. Clean Air Act, was also tossed by a federal court.
Edison’s members have paved the way for U.S. carbon emissions to fall to 1984 levels despite electricity usage increasing by 73 percent, Edison Institute President Tom Kuhn said.
“Just as we do with any rulemaking, we will assess EPA’s proposed new regulations through the lens of whether they align with our priorities and support our ability to provide customers with the reliable clean energy they need at an affordable cost,” Kuhn said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center called the proposals a significant step in cleaning up the power sector.
“If we are going to tackle the climate crisis, EPA’s announcement is a crucial piece in moving the South—and the nation—away from a fossil fuel past and toward a clean energy future,” said Gudrun Thompson, leader of SELC’s Clean Energy and Air Program.
Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson now produces enough electricity from natural gas to power 1.7 million homes. The three natural gas units replaced coal-fired generators that were retired in 2011 at the plant site six miles northwest of Atlanta along the Chattahoochee River.
Other natural gas units that are producing electricity in Georgia are located at Plant McIntosh in Effingham County and Plant Yates in Coweta County.
Georgia Power is shutting down the majority of its coal burning units over the next several years, determining that the aging coal producing units aren’t economically viable in the long term.
State regulators are scheduled to decide in 2025 the timeline for Georgia Power to close its last coal-fired power generator located on the site of Plant Bowen in Bartow County.
Georgia’s electricity generating portfolio will be most significantly boosted by the nuclear power expansion at Plant Vogtle, which Georgia Power plans to begin operating this summer and have completed by early 2024.
In January, the EPA also proposed guidelines that it estimates would prevent 580 million pounds of toxic ash from polluting the nation’s waterways every year. The agency cited new filtration technologies to remove lead, arsenic, and mercury from coal ash.
Clean energy activists have been battling with Georgia Power and other utilities over the dumping of toxic coal ash into unlined ash ponds that contaminate groundwater. More than a dozen environmental groups in April sued the EPA for failing to set water pollution limits for some industrial pollutants and for failing to update decades-old standards.
States Newsroom national energy reporter Robert Zullo contributed to this story.