Carbon Regulation for Existing Coal Plants On the Horizon

Guest Blog | May 28, 2014 | Climate Change, Coal, Energy Policy
In less than a week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will unveil its first ever carbon pollution standards for existing coal-fired power plants.  These proposed standards are expected to be released on June 2 and, once published in the Federal Register, will be open for public comment.  The ultimate goal is to have final, effective carbon standards in place by June 2015.

Carbon dioxide is the primary driver of global climate change and is released through human activities – primarily from the burning of burning fossil fuels.  In 2012, over 366 million tons of carbon dioxide were emitted from roughly 270 coal units at 82 coal-fired power plants across our 8 Southeastern states.  Carbon pollution standards for existing coal-fired power plants will be one of the most important tools in the fight to reduce our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, to stem our substantial contributions to global climate change and to protect the Southeast from the dangers of extreme weather and rising sea levels.

It has been a bumpy ride on a long road towards national carbon dioxide regulation.  After the historic decision by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson found that greenhouse gases “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”  This “Endangerment Finding” triggered a series of administrative actions that led EPA to this stage of regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel plants – both natural gas and coal.

Before turning to the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, there was a serious Congressional effort to enact cap-and-trade legislation to help reign in our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.  In June 2009, the U.S. House passed the Waxman-Markey bill by a narrow margin.  The Waxman-Markey effort ultimately died in the Senate, however, after failing to find a Republican sponsor.  After the death of Waxman-Markey, efforts to address carbon pollution through the legislative branch all but disappeared as the Obama administration turned to EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.

In September 2013, EPA released proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants – actually marking the second time EPA released proposed carbon standards for new power plants – the first being in March 2012.  Both the newly proposed standards for new power plants and the upcoming standards for existing power plants are key parts of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, unveiled in June 2013.  Other carbon-cutting efforts laid out in the Climate Action Plan include increasing fuel economy standards, developing advanced transportation technologies, reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases (like methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) and increasing renewable generation capacity.

Recently, our national annual carbon dioxide emissions have been declining, but the reasons behind these reductions are varied.  Although almost half of the reduction in emissions has come from development of clean energy and increased implementation of energy efficiency (see chart below), a little more than half of the reductions were caused by slower economic growth due to the ongoing recession.  Once the economy starts to pick back up, so too may our carbon dioxide emissions – this is why aggressive carbon pollution standards for existing coal-fired power plants are essential to ensure we achieve significant and long-term reductions in our national carbon emissions.

Source: Natural Resources Defense Council


The most recent National Climate Assessment was released earlier this month and its message was loud and clear – climate change is real and its already here.  Parts of the Southeast will be among the first and most heavily impacted regions in the country by climate change through sea level rise, increasingly frequent and intense extreme heat, drought, flooding and increased air pollution.  We have been working towards a national, comprehensive approach to reducing our nation’s carbon emissions for a long time and we look forward to seeing what the EPA proposes on June 2.  Stay tuned!

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