Center for American Progress

EPA Carbon Standard Takes a Bite out of Pollution

EPA Carbon Standard Takes a Bite out of Pollution

Proposed Limits for New Power Plants Cut 123 Billion Pounds of Carbon Emissions Annually

The EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standard for new power plants would cut greenhouse gas emissions and their harmful public health effects, write Daniel J. Weiss, Jackie Weidman, and Celine Ramstein.

Trucks carry out loads of coal at the Pine Creek Coal Company in Spring Glen, Pennsylvania. A new EPA standard aims to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, including coal-fired plants. (AP/Rick Smith)
Trucks carry out loads of coal at the Pine Creek Coal Company in Spring Glen, Pennsylvania. A new EPA standard aims to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, including coal-fired plants. (AP/Rick Smith)

Download full data on proposed coal fired power plants (.xls)

On April 13 the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution from new power plants. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas that significantly contributes to climate change and threatens the health and safety of Americans. Existing power plants are responsible for adding more than 2 billion tons of carbon and other toxic pollutants into the air each year—nearly 13,000 pounds for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The new rules will reduce the pollution added by new power plants by 123 billion pounds annually.

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Please submit a public comment to the EPA in support of strong carbon pollution rules, urging further action to clean up our air and thanking them for their proposed safeguards.

This piece explains the carbon pollution standard’s benefits and why it’s important. Besides cutting pollution the standard provides regulatory certainty for utilities planning to build new power plants. Still, big utilities and the coal companies, along with their congressional allies, are mobilizing to block the standard. But they’re out of touch with public opinion. Speak up on this issue by submitting a public comment to the EPA supporting the rule.

Why we need to limit power plant pollution

Before we get into what the EPA standard does, let’s look at why it’s necessary.

Power plants emit carbon dioxide pollution, which is a greenhouse gas that leads to climate change. One of the consequences of climate change is more smog, which harms human health. A warming atmosphere increases the creation of smog because smog forms from volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that bake in the presence of sunlight. Smog irritates the lungs, spurring respiratory ailments and sparking asthma attacks. Children, seniors, and those with respiratory diseases are most vulnerable to harm from smog.

A report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the health cost of air pollution from coal electricity generation is $62 billion annually.  A 2011 study in the New York Academy of Sciences by the late Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School and others projects that the “best estimates from literature” of the “climate damages from [coal] combustion emissions” is $62 billion annually.

Climate change can also increase the frequency or severity of extreme weather events, causing more event-related deaths and injuries. For instance, the Associated Press reported that the 2010 Russian heat wave that caused 11,000 deaths was “linked to extreme temperatures and stifling smog.”

The United States suffered from multiple extreme weather events over the past two years. 2010 had the most disaster declarations ever declared. Last year was even worse, with a 20 percent increase from the previous record. Fourteen of the 2011 extreme weather disasters caused more than $1 billion in damages, with total devastation that cost nearly $60 billion. This extreme weather reemphasizes the urgency of a national carbon emissions-reduction plan.

As Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned on April 11, the scientific evidence of the effects of climate change grows stronger every week. He cautioned that:

[Sea level] is rising even faster than we thought. The number of violent rainstorms have increased faster than we thought.

Moreover, the World Health Organization warns that “climate change affects the fundamental requirements for health—clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.” Smog, rising seawaters contaminating drinking water, famine, and floods are all future harms from climate change. In 2009 WHO estimated that about 150,000 deaths occur each year in low-income countries as a result of climate change.

For these reasons, more than 120 health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, and others have publicly supported the enforcement of rules that cut carbon pollution. They warned that:

Climate change is a serious public health issue. As temperatures rise, more Americans will be exposed to conditions that can result in illness and death due to respiratory illness, heat- and weather-related stress, and disease carried by insects. These health issues are likely to have the greatest impact on our most vulnerable communities, including children, older adults, those with serious health conditions and the most economically disadvantaged.

The United States is a major emitter of carbon dioxide pollution

The United States emits the second-most carbon pollution of any country, only trailing China. And since the Industrial Revolution, the United States has contributed the most carbon pollution to the atmosphere (free registration required).

At the 2009 Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen—an international meeting to devise an worldwide agreement to reduce carbon pollution—President Barack Obama committed the United States to a 17 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and other pollutants from 2005 levels by 2020. Emissions in 2010 were 5 percent lower than 2005 levels. The New York Times noted on April 16 that “Obama’s [reduction] goal could be met with aggressive efforts by government and industry.”

Recent reductions can be eroded if future new power plants do not limit their carbon pollution. According to a new report by the Energy Information Administration, total energy-related carbon dioxide pollution in the United States fell by 1.9 percent from 2010 to 2011. Carbon pollution from coal-generated electricity fell by 4.5 percent in 2011 and is projected to fall even further—an additional 12 percent—in 2012 but then rise in 2013.

What the standard does

EPA’s proposed standard to limit carbon pollution from new power plants is employing authority granted by Clean Air Act. It would only apply to:

New fossil‐fuel‐fired electric utility generating units, or EGUs. For purposes of this rule, fossil‐fuel‐fired EGUs include fossil‐fuel‐fired boilers, integrated gasification combined cycle units and stationary combined cycle turbine units that generate electricity for sale and are larger than 25 megawatts.

When final the rules will require new power plants to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity. This corresponds to a 40 percent to 60 percent decrease from what the typical new coal-fired power plant releases. A CAP analysis based on power plant data compiled by the Sierra Club found that the pending rule would cut 123 billion pounds of carbon pollution annually from 22 pending new power plants. (See attached spreadsheet)

Requiring new power plants to take steps to limit their carbon pollution will force them to “internalize” or account for pollution that they formerly emitted into the air for free. Previously, society bore the costs from these emissions such as extreme weather. These additional costs may make some proposed coal-fired power plants uneconomical, so they may be canceled.

Moreover, the additional cost to produce cleaner coal power from plants that are built should increase the economic incentive for utilities to instead invest in renewable electricity generated by the sun, wind, and other clean sources. As investments in clean power sources increase, their costs should decrease due to technological and manufacturing advancements. As a result, consumers will have more choices about where their energy comes from.

The carbon rule prevents 123 billion pounds of carbon pollution annually

EPA’s proposed rule will help mitigate climate change and achieve immediate carbon pollution reductions from new power plants.

pollution savings snapshotThe Sierra Club identified 22 proposed but unbuilt coal-fired power plants that would likely have to comply with the new rules. Assuming that these proposed plants are built and become operational, CAP estimates that without the EPA standard they would add 220 billion pounds (more than 110 million tons) of carbon pollution to the atmosphere annually, based on their estimated future electricity generation. The reductions required by the proposed rule would reduce this pollution by an estimated 123 billion pounds of carbon pollution annually. These savings equal the pollution from nearly 11 million passenger vehicles.

The plants in the map below are in varying stages of construction. Some have permits while others are awaiting financial backing. Still others are hoping to break ground within a year. The EPA limits do not apply to new power plants if their construction began within a year of the rules’ proposal date.

Some companies are considering switching their proposed plants to natural gas because it’s cheaper and cleaner to produce. Tenaska Inc. announced on May 8that it may convert its proposed Taylorville, Illinois, coal-fired power plant into a natural gas facility. And other companies may do the same if the price of natural gas remains near its 10-year low.

The map below estimates the pollution reductions from the 22 proposed coal-fired power plants under the standard if they are all built. To fully estimate the potential carbon pollution savings from the proposed standard, our analysis assumes that all of these plants will be built. It is important to note, however, that the additional cost of compliance with the new standard may make some of these plants uneconomical to build and operate, and they may be canceled.

Proposed Coal Fired Power Plants

Scroll over each power plant for data on its carbon pollution with and without standard

New rules provide utilities certainty on reductions

The carbon pollution standard provides certainty for utilities planning to build new power plants. Until now, utilities faced great uncertainty about what level of reduction—if any—would be required by future carbon pollution standards. The EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis of this proposed rule determined that it:

Will reduce regulatory uncertainty by defining section 111(b) [Clean Air Act] requirements for limiting GHG from new EGU [electricity generation unit] sources.

Ralph Izzo, chairman and CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group, or PSEG, spoke favorably about the proposal because of the certainty it gives utilities. PSEG is a major unregulated independent power producer in the United States with nuclear, coal, and natural gas plants in four states. Rizzo said that the proposal:

Establishes a logical and modest standard for new electric power plants and provides the industry with much needed regulatory certainty. The EPA provides a framework for the industry to confront this problem in a cost effective manner.

In addition, some utilities have adequate financial resources to comply with the proposed standards. NRG Energy plans to build a power plant in Texas that would emit 14.8 billion pounds of carbon pollution a year and be required to meet the EPA limits. In 2011 NRG earned $109 million in profit while also sitting on $1.1 billion in cash reserves. NRG and other companies should invest in innovative technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, to meet the standard.

American Electric Power, which has a large number of coal plants and is an opponent of other recent EPA safeguards, does not anticipate abrupt negative economic impacts from the rule. Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for AEP, said:

In the near term, the impact will not be as great. It impacts the ability to expand the use of coal for electricity, but it doesn’t cause immediate concern for us.

Big coal and its allies vigorously oppose the carbon pollution standard

Even though several utilities can afford to comply with the standard, big utilities and the coal companies, along with their congressional allies, are mobilizing to block the carbon pollution standard for power plants. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity—a lobbying group of coal and utility companies—just launched a $40 million media blitz to defeat mercury, smog, acid rain, and carbon pollution reduction standards.

Ranking Senate Environment Committee member James Inhofe (R-OK), recipient of more than $180,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities over the past four years, already announced his opposition to the standard. He said that it is:

My intent to kill this proposal by bringing it to a vote before the US Senate through a resolution under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

A Congressional Review Act resolution can block new rules if Congress passes it and the president signs it into law. It can be offered for a vote in the Senate and House up to 60 legislative days after the final version is published in the Federal Register. A Senate filibuster is not allowed block vote on a CRA. But recent attempts to pass CRA resolutions to block the global warming “endangerment finding” and the cross-state air pollution rules for smog and acid rain both were defeated.

Americans support reductions in carbon pollution

The companies and politicians opposed to the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards ignore most Americans’ views. A February 2012 national poll conducted for the American Lung Association by bipartisan pollsters found overwhelming support for standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. According to this survey 54 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of independents, and 87 percent of Democrats supported the proposed carbon standard. The American Lung Association found that:

Voters overwhelming believe such carbon standards will have a positive impact on air quality (74 percent) and public health (73 percent) and, more importantly, a 44 to 25 percent plurality believe they will have a positive impact on the economy and jobs.

Another national survey released on April 26, 2012, by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that:

75 percent [of Americans] support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans support this policy [limiting pollution from new power plants].

Sixty-one percent of Americans also support holding the fossil fuel industry—coal, oil, and natural gas—responsible for all hidden public health costs associated with illness from air and water pollution. As the Yale Project reports, “68 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 54 percent of Republicans support this policy.”

The proposed carbon pollution rule will protect Americans’ health if it is adopted substantially unchanged from the proposal. The standard for new power plants will reduce the increase in carbon pollution that is accelerating global warming, spur innovation in clean technologies, and create green jobs.

But even with these benefits, the EPA must take the next step and establish carbon pollution reductions for existing power plants that would actually lower current emission levels.

The EPA must next reduce pollution from existing power plants

Global warming pollution and its damages will continue to grow without additional reductions from operating power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial sources.

Even without the proposed rules, electricity generation from coal has declined significantly, primarily due to low natural gas prices. But these improvements can be erased if carbon pollution from new power plants is not limited. New figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that coal generated just 36 percent of U.S. electricity in the first quarter of 2012. This represents a nearly 20 percent decline in coal generation over the same time last year. As previously noted, this has led to a decline in carbon pollution from power plants in 2010 and 2011 that should continue through next year before rising again in 2013.

The proposed rule for new power plants would slow the growth of carbon pollution by 123 billion pounds annually. The EPA must follow the carbon pollution standard for new plants with one that reduces existing emissions from currently operating power plants—the source of 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution.

Such limits would add to the pollution reductions from the first and second rounds of carbon pollution limits from automobiles the Obama administration established that would cut carbon emissions by 6 billion tons over the life of the program.

Act now to support this proposal

The public comment period for the carbon pollution rule began on April 13. In the month since then, a broad coalition of public health, clean air, labor, and other progressive organizations have collected nearly a million comments in favor of the proposal to the EPA. These groups, including the Center for American Progress Action Fund, plan to deliver hundreds of thousands more public comments before the 60-day comment period ends on June 25, 2012.

We need your help to send a powerful message supporting the EPA. Last year more than 800,000 Americans commented in favor of proposed rules to reduce mercury, lead, and other toxic substances from coal-fired power plants. This support helped the EPA adopt strict rules to improve our air quality by reducing mercury pollution from power plants by 90 percent.

We need to fight the loud voices of big coal that use millions of dollars in advertising and lobbying to oppose this and other public health measures. It is critical that the EPA hear from more Americans that they support reducing carbon pollution from power plants. Please submit your comment in favor of the carbon pollution limits on new and existing power plants today by clicking here.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy, Jackie Weidman is Special Assistant for Energy, and Celine Ramstein is an intern with the Energy team at the Center for American Progress. Thanks to Joanne Spalding and Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow

Jackie Weidman

Special Assistant