EPA prepares to test President Biden’s ambitions for a carbon-free electric grid by going beyond direct greenhouse gas regulations and building on the ripple effect stricter rules on air, waste and water.
It’s a “comprehensive approach” to decarbonizing the power grid that’s been underway since the start of the Biden administration (climate wire, October 27, 2021).
But now that the Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case that could limit how the EPA regulates electricity sector carbon, it has become even more important for the agency to find other ways. to show that it can deliver on the president’s promise of grid power that’s 80% clean by the end of this decade — and carbon neutral five years later.
The solution that the EPA is preparing to propose in the coming weeks is a sectoral greenhouse gas roadmap, the conventional rules on air pollutants and water that it plans to enact over the next few years. The strategy could advance Biden’s climate commitments by making it less economical to operate coal-fired power plants in this country.
“It’s just a matter of how tight the EPA wants to squeeze, or legally how tight it can squeeze and politically how tight it can squeeze,” said Niskanen Center chief counsel David Bookbinder. a Washington-based think tank. “Coal-fired power plants could end up in even a steeper slope than they are now.”
The EPA began tossing the idea of a power sector ‘initiative’ or ‘strategy’ in private discussions last year ahead of the start of international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. And EPA Acting Air Chief Joe Goffman outlined the approach in public comments, as well as in the EPA’s chapter of the influential Climate 21 Project transition period memo. which he co-wrote with Brenda Mallory, who became the chair of Biden’s White House Environmental Quality Council, and Jennifer Macedonia, who is now also a top EPA official.
“Where regulation is warranted to address the critical environmental damage caused by coal production and combustion, regulation can create climate co-benefits by rectifying the economics of fossil fuel-based generation and competition with clean energy sources,” the chapter says.
Goffman, who played a leading role in carbon regulation under President Obama and now leads the EPA team that will write the rules on climate and air pollutants, said last year that the EPA Administrator Michael Regan had asked the agency to “consider broadly the various pollutants in the various media relevant to the electricity sector” when developing a carbon action plan. power plants.
Then in October, the Supreme Court — in a surprise move — agreed to consider a case that could dramatically limit the EPA’s options to regulate power plant carbon, confining the agency to efficiency measures at the inside the power plant fence (E&E News PM, October 29, 2021). Such a rule would do far less to move the needle on Biden’s carbon targets than a system-wide standard that encourages fuel switching — as the Obama-era Clean Power Plan did.
The High Court has long been seen as a possible obstacle to this broader reading of the EPA’s air quality authority after it suspended the Obama-era rule in 2016. But its conservative majority has since increased, and last year it broke with usual practice in agreeing to review the Clean Power Plan challenge even though that rule is no longer in effect. This was seen as a signal of the court’s conservative majority’s eagerness to curtail the EPA’s regulatory authority. Oral arguments in the case begin on February 28.
The possible components of the EPA’s overall strategy all have the potential to change the economics of operating and operating coal-fired power plants in ways that encourage early retirements.
These could include actions related to EPA rules for power plant mercury and air toxics and pollution that crosses state lines or contributes to regional haze. Existing EPA effluent guidelines and coal waste rules could also play a role.
The unified agenda the administration released late last year shows that the EPA is also completing greenhouse gas rules for fossil-fuel power plants.
But if they stick to heat rate improvements in power plants, Bookbinder estimated, they can only reduce 5 or 10 percent of their greenhouse gases. So it’s important for the EPA to show it can deliver on Biden’s commitments through other channels.
“The EPA will continue to move forward to establish and implement environmental standards that ensure all Americans are protected from power plant pollution that harms public health and our economy while continuing to benefit ‘affordable and reliable electricity supply,’ the agency said in a statement. statement to E&E News. “With the impacts of climate change becoming more severe, public support for action growing, and the clean energy transition continuing, the EPA will not hesitate to legally meet its obligation to protect people from climate and air pollution.”
Jeff Holmstead, who served as the EPA’s air chief under President George W. Bush, saw value in the EPA providing a roadmap and timeline for any rules that might apply to the electricity sector in the years to come.
“From a political point of view, you want to harmonize them,” he said. “If what they’re doing is saying, ‘You know, here are the regulations we’re allowed to enforce, and here’s our timeline for releasing them’, I think that at least allows companies to look at their fleets. existing ones and to decide whether certain factories might not be profitable.
But Holmstead said the agency should be careful about how it frames the rules’ contribution to Biden’s climate agenda, either in the rules documents or in public comments from EPA officials. Relying on the greenhouse gas benefits of rules that don’t explicitly target greenhouse gas emissions could leave those rules vulnerable to a legal challenge, he said.
“If these have been shown to achieve CO2 reduction benefits, I think that’s one thing,” said Holmstead, who is now a partner at Bracewell LLP. “If they turn this into a big CO2 reduction program, I think they will have problems with a court.”
EPA Water and Air Regulations
Closures of coal-fired plants, which can be fueled by everything from gas prices to competition from renewables, have yet to resume under the Biden administration.
Last year, withdrawals, which are often planned years in advance, fell to their lowest level in seven years, but the US Energy Information Administration currently forecasts 12.6 gigawatts of coal withdrawals this year, which would rank as the third highest annual withdrawal. behind 2018 and 2015 (climate wire, January 10).
Thomas Cmar, an attorney with the AltmanNewman law firm that represents the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, said tougher rules and enforcement are likely on the horizon, which could prompt some factories operating on the fringes to reconsider closing times.
“It’s a question of all the investments that these companies are going to have to make that will end up ‘motivating them to close a plant early,’ he said.
The EPA’s recent decision to crack down on coal ash has prompted some plant operators in states like Indiana and Ohio to warn that they may have to close sooner (green wire, January 11). But at least one such operator, Alliant Energy, told E&E News it planned to comply with agency regulations instead of shutting down its Ottumwa, Iowa plant early. The EPA said it plans to finalize a licensing program for coal ash disposal, as well as establish regulations for surface impoundments of legacy coal ash.
And more than two dozen coal-fired power plants in filings with state regulators cited EPA effluent guidelines as the underlying reason for their decisions to shut down by 2028 or switch to natural gas, including some of Pennsylvania’s largest coal-dependent plants (green wire, December 2, 2021). Cmar expects the EPA to strengthen these regulations in the future.
Meanwhile, pollution from power plants is increasing, the latest EPA figures show. For the first nine months of fiscal 2021, CO2 and nitrogen oxide releases each increased by 10%, mercury emissions climbed 19%, and sulfur dioxide releases climbed 30% compared to the same period in 2020, according to Data published on an EPA website. The increases, which the agency attributes to a jump in coal-fired generation, buck a long-term downward trend.
In response to emailed questions, EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said overall industry emissions are still down from 2019. He highlighted the agency’s plans to working to reduce them through means like the regional haze program, which aims to reduce releases of pollutants that contribute to cloudy air in national parks and wilderness areas.
The National Parks Conservation Association credits the Haze program with helping lock in retirements for 58 generating units at 27 power plants, though not all of those closures have yet occurred.
But under Democratic administrations, the EPA’s handling of the program has drawn fire from Republican officials who say it leads to costly pollution control requirements for little gain in improving the visibility of parks.
Recently, for example, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) blocked the Senate’s further consideration of four EPA nominees to protest the agency’s insistence that the coal-fired Jim About 2,400 megawatt Bridger in southeast Wyoming is tightening controls on nitrogen oxides at two of the facility’s four generator sets (Daily O&M, January 14). This decision, according to opponents, could lead to the loss of jobs and force at least one of the units to close its doors.
In one proposal released this week, the EPA rejected the state’s argument that the requirement should be dropped because the owner of the plant, Oregon-based PacifiCorp, intends to convert the units to the natural gas by 2024. EPA regulators, while leaving the door open for a deal, say they can’t factor in the company’s decision because state officials don’t have not included in their haze reduction plan. Talks were continuing yesterday, but Lummis’ grip on EPA appointments remained in place, according to a spokesman for the senator.