Utility group calls for changes to proposed EPA climate rules
A key trade group representing most of the country's for-profit electric utilities is asking for big changes to a central piece of the Biden Administration's climate policy.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, said in formal comments Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants are too strict, and said power plant owners need more flexibility, including more time to install pollution controls. The EEI also questioned the viability of two technologies the agency relies on to justify the rules.
The environmental group Evergreen Action said the industry proposals would "kneecap" EPA's efforts to combat climate change and run counter to commitments many utilities have made to cut carbon emissions.
The head of the utility trade group called the criticism a "disingenuous narrative."
"As we make clear in our comments, EEI and our member companies support regulations for GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions," Tom Kuhn, CEO of EEI wrote in a statement that also touted the power sector's accomplishments in cutting emissions.
"EEI's member companies have achieved this progress, and continue to make progress, not because they are forced to by federal regulation, but instead because they are committed to delivering resilient clean energy to their customers," Kuhn wrote.
The EPA proposed the new rules in May. The regulations would require coal and gas-fired power plants that run full-time to eliminate nearly all their climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions in just a little over a decade. This would be the first time the U.S. has set such limits, even though power plants are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses in the country - second only to transportation.
Tuesday is the deadline for public comments on the proposed regulations.
In their comments, environmental groups generally argue the rules should be even stricter and implemented faster.
"The crisis of climate change is just so evident this summer with disasters all over the country and the world," David Doniger with the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an interview with NPR. "We need to act."
The proposed rules would help meet the Biden administration's goal of halving U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. The U.S. aims to stop adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere entirely by 2050. Scientists say that "net-zero" target is necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Global average temperatures have already risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius.
At the core of the EPA's proposed regulations are technologies that would capture about 90% of carbon dioxide from coal and gas-fired plants, and then store it deep underground. Some facilities that plan to shut down in coming years or operate at less than 20% of their capacity would be subject to less stringent requirements, like mixing cleaner hydrogen in with natural gas to limit its climate-warming effects.
The EEI says in comments that neither carbon capture and storage (CCS) nor hydrogen blending are "adequately demonstrated today as they are not deployable, available, or affordable." The group says member companies "have significant concerns" about achieving the proposed standards in time, though they still support developing those technologies.
Because most changes that utilities make have to be approved by state utility commissions, the EEI argues members will need more time and flexibility to comply, if the EPA proceeds with the proposed regulations.
Environmental groups said utilities have proven they are more than able to meet the new requirements.
"The power industry is always whining that the standards are too strong or the timelines are too short," Doniger says, but the industry's reaction to previous pollution regulations, including for sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions, shows "they have been remarkably fast in implementing past standards."
The proposed rules have been shaped by years of legal battles. Last year, the Supreme Court restricted the EPA's options for regulating power plant emissions. Justices said that without a specific law, the agency cannot force the entire power generation industry to move away from fossil fuels toward less-polluting energy sources like wind and solar, as a previous plan attempted. Instead, the court said regulators can only require individual power plants to adopt technologies to limit pollution. That left the EPA with few options besides carbon capture.
In the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act, passed after that court decision, Congress gave the administration more authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act. The law, and earlier ones, also subsidize many low-carbon technologies, including carbon capture and hydrogen, as part of an effort to reduce the cost of adding climate-pollution controls. The EPA relies on those subsidies in its proposed rules to find the technologies are viable and affordable.
The coal industry may have the most to lose under this proposal. There are currently 158 active coal-fired power plants in the U.S., according to the Sierra Club. Despite the EPA's analysis, the National Mining Association argues the proposal will hurt the power industry's reliability because it "effectively eliminates the coal fleet overnight." Expensive pollution controls would make coal even less competitive than it is now. Dozens of coal plants have shut down because operators can make more money by switching to natural gas or renewable energy.
But EPA's proposal allows coal plants to continue operating without new climate pollution controls, if they are scheduled to close in coming years or operate only part-time to back up cleaner sources of intermittent generation, such as wind and solar.
If coal plants want to continue generating a lot of electricity for a long time, they'll have to install carbon capture equipment. The NMA says the technology "remains far from commercially demonstrated and economically viable."
Such arguments could become the basis for an expected legal challenge, once the EPA regulations are finalized next year.
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