EPA’s New Power Plant Emission Regulations

On May 11, 2023, the EPA proposed new power plant emission regulations. Power plants produce 25% of all U.S. greenhouse gasses, so the sector is an obvious place to make progress. These proposed regulations, along with the Inflation Reduction Act’s huge investment in clean power and environmental protection and the EPA’s proposed regulation of tail pipe emissions, are the Biden Administration’s effort to address climate change.

The new regulations would virtually eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2040. They set caps on emissions that will go into effect in 2030 and rise gradually thereafter. However, they would not mandate the method plant operators can use to reach the new limits. One method to comply is to employ carbon capture technology, which is not in wide use in the U.S. because it is technologically complex and expensive. Despite claims of critics, the regulations do not require the use of this technology. Another way to meet the limits is switching to cleaner fuels like green hydrogen, which does not emit carbon.

Some inefficient coal plants may have to close as a result of the proposed regulations. But the proposed regulations will merely speed up changes in the industry that are already underway. About 25% of coal plants are already scheduled to retire by 2029 and 60% by 2040. No new coal plants have been built in the U.S. in the last decade because coal is the dirtiest fuel choice and renewable energy sources are fast becoming cheaper.

The Obama Administration’s attempts to regulate power plant emissions sought to replace coal plants with windfarms and solar installations, an approach the Supreme Court found was beyond EPA’s authority. But last summer the Supreme Court confirmed that the EPA had the authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. These new regulations are designed to withstand Court scrutiny by focusing on individual plant performance and avoiding mandates of any particular solution.

The new proposed rules will likely increase average utility bills by 2% by 2030, declining to less than 1% by 2040. However, EPA estimates that limiting pollution from power plants would produce a new economic benefit of up to $85 billion by 2042 through improved public health from lower levels of soot and sulfur dioxide. Limiting these pollutants would prevent 1,300 premature deaths, more than 30,000 asthma attacks and 66,000 lost workdays.

West Virginia politicians are already howling in protest, threatening lawsuits and more. Sen. Joe Manchin threatens to block every Biden Administration nominee to EPA unless the Administration drops the proposed regulations. In Senate financial disclosures, Manchin reported making roughly $2.5 million from 2017 through 2021 from stock he owns in Enersystems Inc., the coal brokerage he founded.  But he says this has nothing to do with his political choices.

This outburst from the West Virginia political establishment seems like posturing for a political audience. Our political leaders should have the maturity to take a reasonable position that balances the need for greenhouse gas reduction, the need for technical and economic feasibility in the methods for doing so, and the need to support our coal communities.