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EPA plans to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2040

As climate change continues to be a pressing issue worldwide, the Biden administration is reportedly preparing to unveil a new proposal that aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2040. 

According to anonymous sources familiar with the plans, this proposal is the latest attempt to regulate one of the United States’ largest contributors to climate change, following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the previous effort.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to impose stringent limits on power plants, which could result in fossil-fuel-burning facilities either adopting carbon capture technology for their emissions or switching to alternative fuels. 

Although the proposal is still under final analysis and could undergo changes before its completion and announcement, the proposed limits could nearly eliminate emissions from fossil-fuel burning plants once the most stringent standards are fully implemented. 

However, another source suggests to the New York Times that while there will be significant emission reductions, the cuts may not be as dramatic as some have predicted.

The EPA has been planning an announcement in the coming days, but as the final details are still being determined, a formal proposal could be more than a week away. 

The process of turning the proposal into a final rule package would likely take several more months, with the strictest standards not taking effect until the 2030s. This timeframe would allow the industry to gradually comply with the new regulations.

The electric power sector, which accounted for a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, has been a primary target for climate regulations. President Biden has previously pledged to eliminate emissions from power plants by 2035. 

However, the Supreme Court has complicated these efforts, ruling that the EPA exceeded its authority during the Obama administration by pushing power companies to switch fuels across their fleets and replace coal with cleaner alternatives.

In response, the Biden administration aims to develop new rules that apply within a plant’s fence line, focusing on individual plant emissions. 

The proposed policy would not mandate any specific technology or fuel. However, anonymous sources familiar with the plan suggest that the limits would be so strict that fossil-fuel-burning plants would likely need to use carbon-capture technology or be capable of switching to hydrogen fuel, which does not produce greenhouse gas emissions.

“EPA cannot comment because the proposals are currently under interagency review,” agency spokeswoman Maria Michalos said in an emailed statement to the Washington Post. “But we have been clear from the start that we will use all of our legally-upheld tools, grounded in decades-old bipartisan laws, to address dangerous air pollution and protect the air our children breathe today and for generations to come.”

In recent weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been issuing a series of new rule proposals in an effort to fulfill President Biden’s ambitious climate promises before he faces reelection. 

After the administration spent its first year pushing climate legislation through Congress, which resulted in the approval of nearly $370 billion in new climate spending, Biden officials are now focused on finalizing accompanying regulations before the possibility of a Republican takeover that could undo these advancements.

Fossil-fuel advocates, including several Republican-led states, have already expressed their intention to challenge these new proposals in court. Furthermore, if Republicans were to gain majorities in Congress, they could employ the Congressional Review Act to repeal any regulations that weren’t finalized within 60 legislative days of their implementation.

Many of these new proposals aim to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Last week, the EPA announced the strictest restrictions ever on emissions for cars and trucks, which are the largest source of planet-warming emissions in the United States. 

Additionally, the EPA has promised to finalize a proposed rule on the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps approximately 85 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, later this year.

Researchers who model emissions assert that this collection of regulations is crucial for meeting Biden’s commitment to cut total U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act, last year’s climate spending bill, would put the country on track to reduce emissions by up to 42% by the target date.

According to analysis released by the Rhodium Group last month, the executive actions on power plants, vehicles, and methane would contribute an additional 6 percentage points of reduction.

However, environmental groups are concerned that the specifics of the EPA’s power plant proposal may not be strong enough and plan to advocate for faster timelines. These groups are waiting for the EPA to release more details before analyzing the proposal. One major concern is the discrepancy between the proposed 2040 timeline and Biden’s initial promise to eliminate the sector’s emissions by 2035. 

John Paul Mejia, the national spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, emphasizes the importance of avoiding marginalization of minority and poor neighborhoods near industrial polluters, as environmental justice groups have opposed technologies that they perceive as supportive of polluters.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be much more stringent,” Mejia said. “This proposal should be in line with the scale of ambitions that were promised to us.”

Fossil fuels, primarily gas and coal, continue to play a significant role in the United States’ energy production, accounting for approximately 60% of the country’s electricity in 2021, according to data from the Energy Department. 

Although there has been a shift toward zero-emissions sources like wind and solar, resulting in the retirement of numerous fossil fuel power plants, especially coal, this trend appears to be slowing down.

Between 2015 and 2020, the industry retired around 11 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity annually. However, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that only 8.9 gigawatts will be shuttered this year. To support companies in reducing their emissions, Congress has provided subsidies for the development of carbon-capture technology, aiming to make it more profitable. A federal tax credit offers businesses up to $180 per metric ton for utilizing carbon capture. Also, the Inflation Reduction Act increases the tax credit for legacy carbon capture technologies used by oil and gas companies by 70%, raising it to $60 per ton.

These changes have implications for EPA rulemaking. If the necessary technology for compliance becomes more affordable and efficient, the EPA can leverage this to impose higher standards, as it should be easier for businesses to meet them.

According to two sources speaking with the Washington Post who are familiar with the details, the agency is also considering flexibilities for individual power plants. Targets will differ based on factors such as plant size and usage. 

In some cases, coal-fired plants scheduled for retirement in the coming years may not be required to meet the new standards at all. This approach acknowledges the unique circumstances and challenges faced by each facility while still working toward a collective goal of reducing emissions and combating climate change.

As the details of the EPA’s power plant proposal have yet to be made public, environmental groups and concerned citizens will be eagerly awaiting further information to determine the potential impact of these regulations on the United States’ progress in combating climate change.

More about greenhouse emissions from power plants

Power plants emit greenhouse gases, primarily in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), when they burn fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil to produce electricity. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to global warming and other adverse environmental effects.

Here is a detailed explanation of how power plants emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change:

Burning fossil fuels

The majority of power plants generate electricity by burning fossil fuels. The combustion process releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. For instance, coal-fired power plants are particularly significant sources of CO2 emissions due to the high carbon content of coal.

Methane (CH4) emissions

Natural gas-fired power plants also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Although burning natural gas produces less CO2 than coal, the extraction, processing, and transportation of natural gas can lead to methane emissions, another potent greenhouse gas. Methane has a much higher global warming potential than CO2, trapping approximately 25 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions

Power plants that burn fossil fuels also emit nitrous oxide, a lesser-known but potent greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential nearly 300 times greater than that of CO2 over a 100-year period. While N2O emissions from power plants are relatively small compared to CO2 emissions, they still contribute to climate change.

Indirect emissions

Power plants can also indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions through activities such as land use changes for mining or drilling, the construction and maintenance of power plants and transmission lines, and the production and transportation of fossil fuels.

The cumulative effect of these greenhouse gas emissions from power plants has a significant impact on climate change. As the Earth’s atmosphere becomes more saturated with these heat-trapping gases, global temperatures rise, causing disruptions to weather patterns, melting of polar ice caps, sea-level rise, and an increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. 

To mitigate the contribution of power plants to climate change, there is a growing emphasis on transitioning to cleaner energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, as well as investing in energy efficiency and carbon capture technologies.


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