April 22, 2022 Here’s What the EPA’s New Rule on Gas Power Plants Might Look Like

Natural gas fueled electricity generating power plant near Hermiston, Oregon. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Natural gas fueled electricity generating power plant near Hermiston, Oregon. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft white paper Thursday that gives the public a glimpse into the possible requirements the agency might include in a highly-anticipated new rule that seeks to rein in climate-warming emissions from natural gas power plants, the nation’s leading source of electricity.

The agency is seeking public comment on the paper, which explores a host of different technologies and other options that states, Tribes and power companies could be required to adopt under a new rule to make their gas-fired power plants more efficient and cleaner—something the agency said is critical for battling climate change as projections of natural gas use point to continued growth for the foreseeable future.

Those options include building hybrid plants that run on both gas and renewable energy, implementing carbon capture technology to help reduce overall emissions, as well as phasing in the use of hydrogen gas, which burns without emitting carbon dioxide. Many of those technologies, however, have been criticized by climate activists, who say they aren’t as effective as proponents claim and distract from the more important task of transitioning away from fossil fuel use altogether. 

In March, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the agency’s intention to implement a new rule to regulate gas power plants, specifically by replacing an Obama-era standard that limits greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas power plants with a more stringent one. The current standard allows power plants to emit 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, but the average natural gas power plant emits just 865 pounds of CO2, meaning most gas plants aren’t affected by the regulation. The agency is expected to propose the more stringent rule later this year.

The paper’s release was celebrated by environmentalists, many of whom have felt increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration, which they say has failed to live up to its promise of tackling the worsening climate crisis. Soon after taking office, President Biden pledged to slash the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, an ambitious goal that would require significant reductions across nearly every sector of the economy.

But Biden’s first year as president was marred by his inability to pass national climate policy, among other progressive priorities. And activists have criticized the administration, saying it has compromised on too much of its environmental agenda at a time when climate scientists say the consequences of global warming are on the verge of quickly spiraling out of control.

“Despite the clear scientific consensus that, in order to avert the worst of the climate crisis, we must stop the expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure entirely, utilities across the country are proposing to build more than 200 new gas plants without any plan to control their greenhouse gas pollution,” the Sierra Club wrote in a press release Thursday. “This white paper is an important step in developing more stringent nationwide standards to limit this pollution.”

The use of natural gas to generate electricity and heat homes has played a significant role in reducing the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, as gas replaced the burning of dirtier coal—a fact that has prompted those in the industry to regularly tout gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner energy. But many energy experts and climate campaigners say gas has played its role and is now incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s targets of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius, with the ideal goal of keeping it below 1.5 degrees. Keeping warming to that threshold would help humanity avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change, scientists say.

Yet despite dire warnings from researchers, the United States will likely continue investing in—and even expanding—its use of natural gas to generate electricity in the foreseeable future, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency doesn’t expect natural gas use to peak in the U.S. until about 2028, with only a slight decrease in use before plateauing through mid-century.

The comment period for the draft EPA white paper will end in June, the same month the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could decide how much authority the EPA has to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. While that case, West Virginia v. EPA, doesn’t directly involve the new power plant rule discussed in the white paper, if the Supreme Court chooses to curtail EPA’s authority, it could limit the agency’s ability to implement any new rules governing CO2 emissions from power plants unless Congress takes legislative action allowing it.

With West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin blocking such legislation from moving forward, the Supreme Court ruling could have long-lasting consequences for the climate. Manchin has signaled in recent weeks that he’s willing to revisit Biden’s Build Back Better Act, including several climate provisions that were included in it, such as electric vehicle tax credits. But it’s also likely that whatever Manchin agrees to will also include provisions that ultimately boost domestic oil and gas production, making any efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions that much harder.

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$536 billion

That’s how much money insurance companies invested in fossil fuel interests in 2019, even as they paid damages for natural disasters that were exacerbated by climate change, a new report found.