EPA’s new power plant rule spotlights carbon capture role in cutting emissions

Washington D.C. Correspondent
A man, Michael Regan, speaks in a wood paneled room (a Congressional hearing room).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan testifies in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in May 2023. Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff, via Getty Images.

The United States government has identified carbon capture and storage as the most commercially viable technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its electric power sector, beginning in 2032.   

This morning, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its final rule to limit carbon pollution from the existing fleet of dwindling coal-fired plants and natural gas fired plants not yet built. For now, the rule does not apply to the large fleet of existing gas fired plants. It also notably omits mention of using hydrogen to clean up fossil fuel plants, which had been floated in an earlier version of the rule. 

EPA will propose separate limits for the existing gas fleet after listening to utility officials and environmental advocates, who said “you can do better,” an EPA official told reporters on a conference call Wednesday to preview the rules. 

In the U.S., 60% of electricity comes from burning natural gas and coal. The curbs on electric power sector emissions are aimed at meeting President Joe Biden’s goal of having a fossil-free electric sector by 2035.  

The rule was announced along with limits on mercury emissions and curbs on wastewater contaminants and coal ash pollution at power plants.  

Together, “these actions will allow us to tackle the full array of threats that power plants pose to clean air, safe water and healthy lands,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan. 

He also said the package of rules will give the power industry the certainty it needs to plan future investments in pollution controls.  

The carbon regulations are meant to be the “sticks” to complement the “carrots” in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which gives hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits to help the country tackle climate change, including helping the utility industry shift to cleaner power.  

The carbon pollution rule alone is expected to cut 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon emissions in the U.S. through 2047, equivalent to the emissions from 328 million gas-powered cars or nearly a full year’s worth of emissions from the U.S. electric power sector, according to a statement from EPA.  

The agency is attempting for the third time in recent years to set power plant carbon pollution limits after earlier efforts were stalled in the Supreme Court.

The new rule is a pared down version of a proposal EPA announced in May 2023 that had identified blending hydrogen made with renewable energy along with carbon capture and storage as the two best and most commercially viable technologies for reducing emissions. 

Although EPA is no longer highlighting hydrogen as an option, senior agency officials said utilities can still use it to comply with the rule. “It’s still on the table,” an official told news reporters.  

In response to the May 2023 proposal, power companies had raised questions about hydrogen’s availability, the technology to burn it with natural gas and whether it could be affordably installed. And environmental groups raised concerns that hydrogen made using electricity from the grid could increase carbon emissions.  

The omission could slow the growth of the nascent hydrogen industry. Absent “a regulatory driver,” the U.S. Energy Department said hydrogen as a gas replacement will take more time to develop.  

The rule received a largely mixed reaction from environmental groups. 

Frank Sturges, an environmental attorney with the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, told Cipher EPA’s rule is “a meaningful step” to address carbon pollution from the longest running coal plants and natural gas plants yet to be built.

That said, Sturges said the most obvious drawback is EPA’s decision to leave out existing natural gas fired power plants from this rule and issue a separate regulation for them. “We want to see them act expeditiously and we want them to act as quickly and comprehensively to regulate these plants,” he said. 

Industry signaled its displeasure with the final rule, saying it threatens power reliability at a time of increasing demand.  

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, with members that serve 42 million people and run nearly two thirds of their fleets on fossil fuels, objected to the reliance on carbon capture and storage in the proposed rule, saying carbon capture is not yet commercially viable.

The association’s members are developing five carbon capture and storage projects at power plants across the country.  

“We are reviewing the final rule but are increasingly concerned with the administration’s contradictory approach to energy policy,” Marty Durbin, senior vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.  “With near daily reminders that electricity demand will increase exponentially — for data centers, AI, new manufacturing facilities and the ever-increasing electrification of the economy — we are concerned the rule would significantly restrict electricity supply necessary to meet that demand.”