As the Environmental Protection Agency moves ahead with plans to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants — primarily coal-fired power plants — the coal industry and those wanting the U.S. to curb its greenhouse gas emissions are pushing to shape the new regulations before they're written.
Last week, the EPA wrapped up more than a month of “listening sessions” designed to tap the public for input on how the agency should design guidelines limiting carbon emissions from existing coal-fired and other power plants. The EPA has rolled out a proposed rule in September that would limit carbon emissions from future coal plants. But the rule governing existing power plants is expected to have more of an impact because it aims reduce emissions from the largest stationary sources of carbon emissions in the country and directly affect more than 500 coal-fired electric power plants in the U.S. and the jobs associated with them.
The EPA intends to limit carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants under Clean Air Act Section 111(d) as a way to slow climate change, part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan.
“Climate change is a real threat to America,” EPA Region 2 Administrator Shawn Garvin said Friday at a listening session in Philadelphia. “It’s happening now. Just think about 2012. The extreme weather events we saw first hand are the very types of events climate change will make more likely.”
Hurricane Sandy, wildfires throughout the West, a massive heat wave, longer allergy seasons — all evidence, he said, that taking action on climate change is really taking action to protect public health. “We can do something about it,” Garvin said. “We cannot afford to delay. The action we will discuss today is an important step.”
Though the new guidelines haven’t been written yet, they could take a cue from the EPA’s proposed rules governing new power plants, which were rolled out in September and aim to cap coal plant carbon emissions to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour and natural gas plant emissions at 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour.
Natural gas power plants can easily meet the new standard because they already average about 800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, according to EPA estimates. But coal plants, which average 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, will be expected to use existing carbon capture technology to reduce emissions.
The EPA’s goals to limit emissions negatively impact Consol Energy’s ability to produce affordable electricity, and the company is urging the EPA to develop carbon emission limits that have no impact on the coal industry, and will not lead to the closure of any coal-fired power plants, Richard Winschel, Consol director of research services, told EPA officials Friday.
“Carbon regulations should do no harm — they should not interfere with affordable and reliable electricity supplies,” he said, adding that climate change energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage measures would do enough to curb emissions.
Coal is declining as a fuel for electric power generation in the U.S., losing market share to natural gas, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report released Friday. The competition between coal and natural gas consumption for electricity generation is complex, however. While natural gas has been gaining ground from coal overall, natural gas power generation has declined this year because of higher natural gas prices, but while coal generation has also declined, it has gained ground as a power source in Texas and throughout the West, the EIA reported in October.
The EPA is hearing from groups pushing for the agency to clamp down on carbon emissions, while the coal industry is asking the EPA to regulate coal-fired power plant emissions as little as possible because it says thousands of jobs at coal-fired power plants and coal mines are at stake.
The economic impact new emissions regulations could have on coal-producing and consuming regions are small compared to the impacts of sea level rise, drought, flooding and other hazards brought by climate change, Elizabeth Tatum of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania told EPA officials. She also called for the agency to keep in check methane emissions from natural gas drilling and fracking to have a positive effect on climate change.
“Protect public health from its devastating impacts,” Tatum said.
The United Mine Workers of America is asking the EPA for more time for the coal power industry to adapt before new emissions regulations kick in, said the union’s international vice-president, Ed Yankovich.
“There has to be help getting technology into coal fired power plants,” he said. “To disallow coal altogether I think is a total mistake. There would be devastation to Appalachian communities. Absolute devastation.”
“We’re quite aware of the problem of climate change,” John Duffy, vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America, told EPA officials. “Through this whole debate, one group of people is left out. When we look at the devastation caused by Sandy and hundreds of people’s homes destroyed, our first instinct is to help those people. A lot of other people are suffering in silence when these (coal-fired power) plants shut down. A lot of these plants are in rural areas where that’s the only place to work.”
The UWUA is advocating for utilities to charge all their customers for the closure of a coal-fired power plant so that laid-off workers can be retrained and their communities can have funding for economic development, Duffy said.
“What’s right by the environment will indeed by beneficial to the economy,” St. Joseph’s University business professor Diane Phillips told EPA officials, advocating for placing a price on carbon emissions and divorcing a utility’s profits from its customer’s electricity consumption because there is currently no incentive for utilities to encourage less power consumption.
“A predictable, stable price on carbon will encourage investment in a variety of new technologies,” she said. “Very few investors will commit capital to a project unless there’s a guaranteed floor through which the price of carbon cannot drop.”
And, Phillips said, power consumers should be allowed to sell the power they generate from rooftop solar and other sources of distributed power generation back to the grid because there are too many places across the country that prevent it. “There needs to be a consistent policy across the nation,” she said.
The EPA plans to have the proposed new guidelines for existing plants available to the public in June 2014 and finalized in 2015. States will be expected to implement them in 2016.