New Biden climate rules target coal power plants

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New Biden climate rules target coal power plants

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The Biden administration has finalised one of its key climate policies to crack down on US power plant emissions, despite being less stringent than campaigners had hoped as it faces legal challenges from Republican states.

The rules will set stricter emissions standards for existing coal plants and new natural gas plants — but not existing gas plants — and recommend controversial carbon capture and storage technology for the emissions. Carbon capture is expensive and not yet deployed anywhere at scale.

The Environmental Protection Agency had considered the inclusion of existing gas plants, the most contentious element, but has said instead that it would propose new standards at a later date.

If implemented, the new rules will mark the first time the US government will enforce a federal emissions standard on the power sector, the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

The rules are carefully tailored to shield against legal challenges following a Supreme Court ruling in 2022 that curbed the agency’s ability to regulate emissions.

In addition to carbon standards, the EPA also announced rules for coal ash management and toxic metal and water pollution from coal plants.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said the rules together would address the “full array of threats that power plants pose to clean air, safe water and healthy land” and be “durable” in the face of legal attacks.

The rules are the third attempt by the EPA to enforce emissions standards on the power sector. In 2022, the Supreme Court struck down an Obama-era effort, known as the Clean Power Plan. While the Trump administration implemented its own version of the rule, it was also struck down.

“The EPA is writing these climate rules in the context and against the backdrop of the Supreme Court which has been especially sceptical of EPA environmental rules,” said Jody Freeman, former counsellor for energy and climate change in the Obama administration. “They have to be very attentive to make sure the records for these rules are legally robust to make sure they survive judicial review.”

The new rules require existing coal plants to curb 90 per cent of their pollution if they plan to operate past 2039, a year earlier than initially proposed, starting with cuts to be phased in from 2032.

Carbon capture and storage technology is recommended as a method of compliance. President Joe Biden’s landmark climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, included tax credits to help make its expensive development more viable.

New gas plants will face these rules starting 2032. The EPA also lowered the capacity threshold for new gas plants to be subject to emissions standards.

The new rules also no longer recommend a proposal for low-carbon hydrogen to reduce emissions, a move that analysts say will help shield the agency from lawsuits.

Despite the tightening, the emissions impact is likely smaller than anticipated due to the exclusion of existing gas plants, the largest source of electricity on the US grid. The EPA estimates its emissions rules for power plants will reduce carbon pollution by 1.38bn metric tonnes through 2047, or about one year of emissions from the US power sector.

Coal plants make up about 16 per cent of electricity generation, overtaken by clean energy supplying about 20 per cent in 2023, while gas supplies about 43 per cent.

The Biden administration has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. While the EPA said it would address pollution from existing gas plants in a later plan, it is uncertain if this will occur in the remaining months of the Biden administration or survive the Congressional Review Act, which allows the next president to undo recent legislation.

The proposed rules have faced intense scrutiny from politicians, utilities and unions, which have expressed concerns over power grid reliability and the feasibility of deploying sufficient carbon capture rapidly. More than 1.4mn comments were submitted to the EPA’s proposed rulemaking.

Video: The carbon capture question | FT Climate Capital

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