Power plant regulations proposed by the Biden administration could dramatically reduce carbon emissions while allowing some fossil fuel infrastructure to continue operating with no end date in sight.
That dichotomy, as a result of the administration’s complicated bet on carbon capture and hydrogen technologies, could leave some communities facing air pollution and other localized impacts from some coal and natural gas power plants, even at as the nation approaches its climate goals. .
While many national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club touted the potential of the regulation to reduce emissions, some local environmental justice leaders expressed concern about what it could mean for their communities.
“It is extending the life of fossil gas plants and will increase air pollution in disadvantaged communities,” said Juan Jhong Chung, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “Those policies will lead to sacrifice zones. Many of the loads are localized and the benefits go to the whitest and wealthiest communities.
The rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday, could widen dividing lines within the environmental community as the administration tries to stay between the lines drawn by the Supreme Court and still achieve its climate ambitions.
The draft regulations will now undergo a months-long public process before they are finalized. Once implemented, the regulations will almost certainly face legal challenges from industry groups and states led by Republican attorneys general.
The proposed rules would require almost all coal and gas plants in the United States to reduce or capture about 90% of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2038.
EPA designed the rule to align with the June Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA. The court said the EPA could not use the provisions of the Clean Air Act to make utilities move away from coal-fired power plants and toward generating power with wind, solar, and other cleaner energy sources. .
But it left intact other options within the law, including requiring pollution limits like the ones the EPA proposed Thursday, which would force coal and gas plants to capture and store carbon pollution. Gas plants could also run in conjunction with hydrogen, meaning they would use a cleaner fuel for at least part of their generation.
Environmental lawyers said the EPA has adapted its new regulations to conform to the Supreme Court ruling.
“What you can do is the traditional approach: set pollution standards that reflect numerical emission limits that can be achieved by affecting pollution controls at individual plants,” said David Doniger, attorney and senior strategic director for the climate and clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports rulemaking.
If the rules are enacted, some power companies could choose to retrofit their plants with carbon capture and storage technology, which has not been deployed or proven effective on a large scale. Others might choose to retire coal and gas plants and invest in renewables like wind and solar, a trend that is already happening as these technologies fall in cost.
“It will be up to the companies to decide which plants will operate for a long time and at a high rate,” Doniger said. “This rule is intended to support business as usual, make sure it happens, and go further and faster.”
The Inflation Reduction Act included subsidies that apply to carbon capture and storage technology and hydrogen technologies, which could make those technologies cheaper and help bolster the EPA’s argument that it’s not too much burdensome for companies to regulate their emissions.
Doniger said he thought the regulation would withstand judicial scrutiny.
The regulation does not cover all power plants equally. Some smaller power plants and those used only when demand is extremely high, called peaking units, would not be held to the same strict standards. That has been a concern for some environmental advocates.
“Those peak plants are closest to environmental justice communities, black and brown communities, communities of color,” Jhong Chung said, adding that carbon capture and hydrogen were unproven solutions. “We will see more cases of respiratory disease here” in Detroit.
Some small gas plants may actually run more frequently as companies change the way they supply power to comply with the regulation if it is enacted, Doniger said. That could lead to more local air pollution from nitrogen oxides, or NOx, from small gas plants.
Doniger said NRDC was eager to work with communities to find solutions and said EPA should pay close attention to those types of contamination impacts.
“There are things EPA can do to strengthen pollution controls in source categories if we will have additional NOx emissions from small gas plants because they run more,” Doniger said.
Environmental groups proposing the rule, such as the NRDC, believe the rule will ultimately move power companies away from coal and natural gas, while giving those companies options during the transition.
But some environmental advocates say the Biden administration is falling short and giving the fossil fuel industry an unnecessary lifeline.
“The rule continues to provide a path for fossil fuel plants to operate indefinitely at a time when we need to make a drastic transition from fossil fuel plants to renewable energy plants,” said Jason Rylander, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. , who prefer that the administration seek a national cap on carbon emissions through a separate legal mechanism within the Clean Air Act.