EPA won’t require carbon capture at existing coal plants

Existing coal-fired power plants won’t be required to install equipment to capture and store the carbon dioxide they emit under new Environmental Protection Agency rules, the regulator’s top EPA official said.

Gina McCarthy, the agency’s administrator, told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington Monday that EPA will issue guidelines for states that allow the use of energy efficiency, clean-energy installations or demand cuts to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. The EPA issued a proposal for new coal-burning power plants on Sept. 20 that would require the expensive capture technology, called CCS.

“CCS is really effective as a tool to reduce emissions when it’s designed with the facility itself,” McCarthy said today. Instead of rules limiting emissions at particular plants, the EPA must use “an extremely different process, and one that requires that EPA has a broader discussion about how states can reduce carbon.”

Carbon-dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution have led to a warming of the Earth’s temperature in the past 50 years, worsening forest fires, drought and coastal flooding, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Electricity generation accounts for 40 percent of U.S. emissions, putting it at the top of the list of both the EPA and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club in their bids to address global warming.

First Signal

McCarthy’s comments are an initial signal about how the agency is conceiving its rules for existing power plants, which may have far-reaching impact on the electricity sector and consumers bills. They are scheduled to be issued next June.

While some lawyers say the agency must follow the framework it used for new plants and issue a standard for each particular plant, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say the agency could set an emission level for entire power sector, and let state regulators come up with the combination of cuts in supply and demand to meet it.

With her comments today, McCarthy indicated the agency is considering that approach. “It’s not just about facilities,” but about how electricity is produced and used, she said.

That plan would reduce the impact on utilities, but also may induce deep cuts in the use of coal, which emits twice the carbon dioxide as natural gas when burned to create power. Utilities such as Southern Co. are already shifting away from coal to natural gas, as prices for gas have fallen following the boost of production from hydraulic fracturing.

Still, coal producers, some utilities and Republicans in Congress have all warned that the EPA’s standard announced last week would effectively outlaw construction of new coal-fired power plants, because of the cost of installing carbon-capture technology. McCarthy rejected that argument today.

“We know coal isn’t the fuel of choice right now,” McCarthy said. Still, by requiring carbon capture on new plants, McCarthy said EPA may “create a path forward” for coal.