The nerd’s guide to Biden’s new climate rule
A handy key to understanding what the president wants power plants to do.
President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday proposed powerful new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, the nation’s second-largest source of climate pollution.
The rule, which covers existing fossil fuel plants as well as future ones, clocks in at 681 pages. Here’s what to know about the proposal, which Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Regan said will “protect people from harmful pollution and safeguard the planet for future generations.”
Wait, didn’t EPA do this before?
Yes — you have a great memory. The agency has tried twice before to regulate carbon dioxide from power plants. And both efforts ended up on the scrap heap.
First was the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in 2015. It set emissions reduction goals for each state based on how much EPA calculated they could achieve. It allowed the states to pursue several strategies to cut their carbon pollution, including shifting away from coal and toward cleaner-burning natural gas or greenhouse-gas-free renewables.
Unfortunately for the rule’s supporters, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, and the new Trump administration clawed back Obama’s rule. Last June, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority — including three Trump-nominated justices — ruled that the Obama plan illegally overreached the agency’s authority.
The Trump administration issued a much more narrow regulation, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which would have required states to consider ways to make coal plants more efficient — producing more electricity for less carbon dioxide. EPA’s own estimates indicated the rule would have had a minimal effect on pollution and could have even increased it if the more efficient plants ran more frequently.
A lower court struck down the ACE rule on former President Donald Trump’s last full day in office, ruling that EPA had unlawfully ignored other regulatory options.
What is Biden’s rule called?
Unlike the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden EPA eschewed giving its rule a cute nickname. “Traditional approach, traditional name,” EPA tweeted Thursday, referring to the cumbersome, legalese title of the regulation.
How does Biden’s rule work?
Call this the Goldilocks rule — EPA is hoping that after doing too much and then too little, it has now gotten the regulation just right.
The rule would set new, much tighter pollution limits that individual fossil fuel power plants must meet, rather than the statewide targets that Obama’s rule had imposed.
But state governments will still have a role in implementing the rule: They will have to come up with compliance plans for the plants within their borders and get EPA’s approval.
The rule covers all existing coal-fired power plants, the most potent source of carbon dioxide pollution in the U.S. electricity system.
Those set to retire before 2032 or 2035 can avoid any real pollution reductions. Any plants retiring between 2035 and 2040 would have to reduce their emissions by 16 percent, which EPA said can be achieved by shifting the plant’s fuel mix to 60 percent coal and 40 percent natural gas in a process known as “co-firing.”
And coal plants expected to be operating in 2040 and beyond would have to curb their emissions almost 90 percent, which EPA said they can do by installing technology known as carbon capture that sucks up CO2 before it enters the atmosphere. In most cases, the carbon would need to be piped to an offsite location and stored underground.
Ninety percent sounds like a big demand.
It is. While utilities and states will need to do some number crunching, it appears likely these requirements will drive more coal plants to retire before the 2040 deadline. That would add to an already rapid spate of coal plant shutdowns in the past 15 years.
It’s not clear how many coal plants might still exist come 2040 — that will depend on how states and utilities choose to comply with EPA’s rule, plus outside factors such as state renewables mandates and market forces.
But EPA did project a steep drop-off in the use of coal to generate power over time — more than 78 percent between 2028 and 2040 under this rule. But it’s not clear how much of that is due specifically to the proposed rule; EPA’s baseline projects a 75 percent reduction in coal use over that period absent regulation.
That’s especially true for some coal plants that for decades have managed to avoid installing costly controls for conventional pollutants, such as acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide.
“What we know and what our analysis projects is that we will see some coal retirements,” Regan told reporters Wednesday. “But the way this program is designed, this is really a decision that will be made company by company, state by state.”
What about power plants burning natural gas?
The rule sets strict requirements for larger natural gas plants — but the vast majority of gas plants will not be covered by this rule.
Any plants over 300 megawatts in size that run more than half the time — the sort of plants often used to generate so-called baseload power that provides a continual stream of electricity — have two options.
First, they can install the technology to capture 90 percent of their carbon pollution by 2035. Or they can choose to mix more clean-burning hydrogen into their fuel, reaching a 96 percent hydrogen mix by 2038. That latter approach would equate to an 88.4 percent reduction in the plant’s carbon emissions.
The rule treats natural gas differently because it’s a relatively cleaner fossil fuel, producing roughly half as much carbon dioxide as coal does when it’s burned. But gas is also the nation’s No. 1 power plant fuel, producing about 40 percent of electricity in the United States. So the proposed limits for gas plants could have a big impact on where Americans get their power.
Is hydrogen actually cleaner than natural gas?
It depends. Hydrogen itself burns cleanly, but the way most companies produce hydrogen using fossil fuels would actually increase pollution. But using wind, solar or hydropower to run the energy-intensive equipment would eliminate most of that pollution — if engineers can find ways to cut the costs. EPA’s rule requires any hydrogen used to comply with this rule come from low-greenhouse gas methods.
Is that it?
No! EPA has also proposed strengthening a separate standard for newly built natural gas power plants, building on earlier standards issued by the Obama administration.
The proposal creates three classes of newly built gas plants.
The first are “peaker” plants, smaller facilities that run less than 20 percent of the time to offset dips in solar or wind power or to fulfill sudden demand spikes. These plants would effectively avoid any new regulatory requirements.
So-called intermediate plants, which run 20 percent to 50 percent of the time, would have to eventually add some hydrogen into their fuel mix — 30 percent by 2032.
And larger “baseload” plants that run regularly would be subject to the same requirements as existing gas plants: 90 percent carbon capture by 2035 or 96 percent hydrogen co-firing by 2038.
Will anyone sue over this rule?
It will be a while before that happens — this is just a proposed rule, and it probably will take a year or more for EPA to issue a final version.
That’s when the suing will start: definitely Republican state attorneys general, almost certainly some part of the coal industry, possibly natural gas producers and possibly utilities that still use a lot of coal and thus would be hit hardest.
Because the rule is coming so late in Biden’s first term, the outcome of the 2024 election will be critical to its fate. The courts move slowly, so EPA’s legal defense will have only just begun when voters decide whether to let Biden stay in the White House. If he’s replaced by a Republican, the rule almost certainly will get yanked back, as Trump did to Obama’s regulation in 2017.
This doesn’t cover oil?
Sort of! But also, not really.
Very little electricity in the U.S. is generated from oil — just 0.6 percent last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. And much of that was in Hawaii, which imports most of its fuel and got 62 percent of its electricity last year from petroleum. The state has mandated that all its electricity come from renewable energy by 2045.
The rule effectively requires oil-fired electric plants to keep meeting the emissions levels they currently achieve — so they would face no additional carbon capture requirements.
Oil is used much more in the transportation sector — where EPA recently proposed a rule that would effectively require two-thirds of new car sales to be electric by 2032 — as well as industrial uses such as making plastics and for home heating.
What do people say about the rule?
Congressional Republicans are already warning of political payback in 2024.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee, vowed Thursday to lead congressional efforts to kill the rule, though action will have to wait until a final version is issued in 2024.
“The Clean Power Plan 2.0 announced today is the Biden administration’s most blatant attempt yet to close down power plants and kill American energy jobs,” Capito said in a statement. “The EPA has already tried this illegal overreach, which was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court, but not before it devastated communities in West Virginia and across the country.”
Congress’ most pro-coal Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said Wednesday he will vote against all EPA nominees in protest of the rule.
Republican attorneys general, likely led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are also planning a legal battle.
Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, which represents the coal mining sector, argued that carbon capture technologies are not yet ready for primetime.
“We’re talking about 18 states that still rely on coal for the majority of their electricity. And I think those states are going to have something to say about what’s happening here real soon,” he said.
Meanwhile, environmentalists were ecstatic.
“The EPA’s proposed rule sends an unequivocal signal to American power plant operators: the era of unlimited carbon pollution is over,” said Dan Lashof, U.S. director at the World Resources Institute.
But green groups also warned that EPA will have to carefully enforce the regulation to achieve the emissions cuts.
“The EPA and other agencies must ensure that, if equipment is used to reduce carbon emissions, it performs properly, is maintained correctly, does not increase other air pollution, and permanently sequesters the carbon it captures,” said Lissa Lynch, federal climate legal director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.