EPA's first CO2 emissions regs for existing power plants

 

While President Barack Obama’s landmark CO2 emissions regulations for existing power plants will certainly have its losers, in the long-run, the winners are in the majority.

Dubbed the Clean Power Plan, drawn up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, the regulations mark the first time the government has imposed national-scale limits on the carbon pollution that existing power plants are allowed to release.

Power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, accounting for about one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Under the new rule, by 2030 there should be 30 percent less CO2 emitted from the energy sector – and that’s not counting effects of the equivalent rule for new power plants, released last year.

Individual states will be able to design their own unique programs from “a menu of options” that run the gamut from changing the fuels used in electricity generation, to increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand among consumers, to creating or joining regional cap-and-trade markets. State have until until June 2016 to finalize their plans.

EPA_CO2emissionsources.jpg
Source: the Environmental Protection Agency

Losers in this new era of EPA emissions regulations include coal-fired power plants and coal producers, already losing favor as the renewable energy industry expands across the country, will be hardest hit. Nearly three-fourths of emissions from electric power come from coal, yet the resource produces less than half of the country’s electricity. With the new regulations, the EPA projects that the amount of coal used for energy in the U.S. will decline by at least a quarter by 2020. Yet for now, four Western states get more than half their energy from coal: Utah, Colorado and New Mexico supply 60 to 80 percent of their total energy needs from coal; Wyoming, at least 80 percent.

The National Mining Association laments that the new rules “move America’s electric grid away from the low cost and reliable power our economy needs to grow,” and “there’s no doubt that EPA’s approach will raise the cost of electricity for consumers.” The conservative Chicago-based Heartland Institute says the rule represents a “war on affordable energy,” like coal power, and will cost consumers nearly $290 billion more for electricity between now and 2030.

westerncoalconsumption2012.jpg
Coal consumption for energy production the West. Produced with data from the Energy Information Agency.
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Coal production in the West. Graphic created with data from the Energy Information Association.

 

Yet Massachusetts’ environment commissioner David Cash has said that, since 2007 when his state joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first mandatory cap-and-trade program in the United States to limit CO2
from the power sector, overall emissions there are down 16 percent and down 41 percent in the power generation sector specifically. And while the population has grown 10 percent since 1990, energy use has remained flat and ratepayer bills are down 8 percent since joining RGGI.

Ceres, a sustainable business and investment advocacy group, says in its 2013 Benchmarking report of the nation’s top 100 energy companies, that many companies are already reading the writing on the wall and moving to reduce carbon emissions. Last week, Xcel Energy, the eighteenth-largest energy producer in the nation and Colorado’s major energy supplier, touted a 20 percent cut to overall emissions since 2005, saying it’s set to exceed its 2020 emissions reduction goal by an extra 11 percent “through a combination of energy efficient programs and coal plant retirements and conversions, and by embracing renewable energy earlier than other utilities" – the kind of “menu of options” the new rule allows. CEO Ben Fowke said Monday that the steps Xcel has already taken should help the company take the new rule in stride.

Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall came out in support of the new EPA rule, calling it a “good start” and drawing direct links from CO2 to climate change. “Climate change is threatening Colorado's special way of life. Coloradans have seen firsthand the harmful effects of climate change, including severe drought, record wildfires and reduced snowpack," Udall said.

But there’s still plenty of time for argument. The public comment period will span the next 120 days, the EPA doesn’t have to finalize the details of the new standards until June 1, 2015, and even then states will have another year to submit their plans. That’s assuming the whole unprecedented process isn’t mired in litigation, as some expect it will be.

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

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