E.P.A. Is Expected to Set Limits on Greenhouse Gas Emissions by New Power Plants

Source: By MICHAEL WINES, New York Times • Posted: Monday, September 16, 2013

Following up on President Obama’s pledge in June to address climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency plans this week to propose the first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from newly built power plants.

But even before the proposal becomes public, experts on both sides of the issue say it faces a lobbying donnybrook and an all-but-certain court challenge. For a vast and politically powerful swath of the utility industry — operators of coal-fired plants, and the coal fields that supply them — there are fears that the rules would effectively doom construction of new coal plants far into the future.

While details of the E.P.A.’s proposal remain confidential, experts predict that it will include separate standards for carbon dioxide emissions from plants fired by natural gas and by coal. Plants using comparatively clean gas would be permitted to emit perhaps 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, a ceiling within easy reach using modern technologies.

Coal-fired plants, meanwhile, may be allowed to emit as many as 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour. But coal is so heavily laden with carbon that meeting even that higher limit would require operators to scrub carbon dioxide from their emissions before they reach the smokestack, and then pump it into permanent storage underground.

While each plant is different, a generic version of the most advanced coal-fired plant in existence — “ultra-supercritical” plants that use enormous heat and pressure — still emits more than 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide on average, said Howard Herzog, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative.

By comparison, a 550-megawatt version of the most advanced natural-gas plant might be expected to emit 790 pounds of carbon dioxide, the federal Energy Department has estimated.

Carbon-capture technology has been proven to work in trials. But the industry says that the infrastructure to ship and store such vast deposits of carbon does not exist, and that the technology is in any case so costly that it would make new coal plants economically unfeasible.

The American Public Power Association, a group of publicly owned utilities serving 14 percent of electric customers, urged the White House in a meeting on Sept. 4 to cap coal-plant emissions at no less than 1,900 pounds per megawatt-hour, arguing that carbon-capture technologies will not be commercially feasible for at least eight years.

Some experts with ties to the power industry suggest that the E.P.A. is inviting a lawsuit if its new rule forces coal plants to use carbon-capture technologies before they are ready.

During four decades of enforcing the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. “has always talked about using demonstrated technologies, something out there in commercial use,” said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell & Giuliani who was the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for air and radiation under President George W. Bush. “If E.P.A. finalizes a rule that requires carbon capture, I am sure there will be a legal challenge. I think E.P.A. is taking a pretty big legal risk here.”

Those who support strict limits on greenhouse-gas pollution take issue with that, saying the act requires only that clean-air technologies be “adequately demonstrated” — a loosely defined standard that they say was deliberately devised to encourage innovation. Indeed, they note, power industry officials themselves have said that carbon-capture principles have been widely used for decades in other fields.

“The idea that pollution control technology is too expensive to implement is a familiar theme,” said Megan Ceronsky, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and air program. “It’s not a novel response to an environmental regulation.”

Much as automobile companies integrated pollution controls into cars without going broke, she said that power companies are likely to find it far easier and cheaper to adopt new technologies than they now believe.

In some ways, the debate seems moot. In an era of cheap natural gas, hardly anyone in the United States is building coal-fired power plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, not one of the 136 American plants that will open or expand generating capacity this year burns coal. Of the 127 similar plants set to open or expand next year, only two will be coal-fired.

Still, analysts say, coal could someday regain its competitive edge against gas as rising demand forces gas prices to rise and supplies to dwindle. And the push to force coal plants to embrace carbon capture — if the E.P.A. proposal meets expectations — is just the warm-up act for what is likely to be a much bigger battle: a proposal to control carbon emissions by the 6,600 or so existing power plants.

In his June climate action plan, Mr. Obama ordered the E.P.A. to propose new greenhouse-gas rules covering existing plants by next June, and to issue final standards by June 2015.

Electric power generation was responsible for 39 percent of all energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases in 2012, and burning coal generated three-fourths of that pollution, according to the Energy Information Administration.