EPA likely tweaked emission standards in new power plant rule

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2013

There’s a growing belief that U.S. EPA’s second proposal for curbing carbon dioxide from future power plants has changed emission limits.

Those who are closely tracking the rule now say coal and natural gas might be treated separately under the proposal EPA sent to the White House for review last week.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) hinted that yesterday, telling reporters after a meeting with White House climate adviser Heather Zichal that he believes the administration’s intention is to issue standards for separate source categories in the new rule. The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety spoke after admitting he “missed that part of the meeting.”

EPA released a proposal in April 2012 that would have required coal and natural gas power plants alike to limit their emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

But supporters of EPA’s climate change regime say that while there might be some minor differences between the 2012 rule and the one EPA will unveil this September, the new one is unlikely to be less protective of public health in the long run.

Thomas Lorenzen, who served as assistant chief of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division before entering private practice earlier this year, said EPA might have reconsidered its approach of lumping together the two technologies.

“You could see a couple of things happening,” said Lorenzen, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

EPA, he said, might be trying to strengthen its justification for the standard as originally proposed. The proposal relies heavily on the fact that few new coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline because market conditions favor natural gas, but a variety of parties have criticized that basis as legally vulnerable.

Alternatively, said Lorenzen, EPA may have reconsidered its unusual step last year of proposing the same emissions limit for two very different technologies. But this might not mean a weaker standard overall.

“Perhaps without coal being lumped together, the standards for natural gas will be a little more stringent,” he said. “Perhaps without natural gas there, the standards for coal will be a little more lenient.”

EPA might have come to a different conclusion this time about how quickly carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could be available to help coal plants achieve reductions, Lorenzen said.

New power plants might still be required to commit to use CCS eventually, but the agency might allow plants to apply the technology further in the future — perhaps 15 years from now, rather than 11 as specified in last year’s proposal. This would amount to a higher average emissions limit over the life of coal plants, but utilities would have to reduce their emissions dramatically at a future point.

Environmentalists don’t appear to be overly anxious about any changes made in the latest draft.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said EPA noted last year that very few coal plants are likely to be built in the near future.

“I think in the aggregate the rule is probably going to be equivalent,” he told Greenwire today. “Since so few coal plants are on the drawing board for the future, it’s almost a moot point. Even if the standards are a hair less than the earlier proposal, in the grand scheme of things I don’t think the EPA is planning to bless a whole fleet of smoke-belching monsters.”

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the proposal would have to dramatically increase the amount of CO2 a coal plant can release before utilities would be able to move ahead with conventional coal units — which generally emit between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

“It would have to be a lot weaker than 1,000 in order to enable uncontrolled coal plants,” Doniger said. “And we have no evidence that that’s where they’re going.”