First ever limits on GHG emissions from power plants

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has issued the first ever limits on how much carbon dioxide can be emitted by fossil-fuelled power plants.

The proposed rule which was described as “a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children” by the EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, is set to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide to 1000 pounds (454 kg) per megawatt hour for all new fossil-fuelled power plants. The limit is set higher than the CO2 emissions from a modern natural gas plant, which on average emits 800 to 850 pounds (363 to 386 kg) but lower than the average 1768 pounds (802 kg) emitted from coal-fired plants.

It will hinder new coal power plants from being built until the day safe and profitable methods of carbon capture and storage (CCS) or similar technologies are developed. In practical terms, however, it will only have a limited impact on the development of the energy sector as natural gas is the more profitable alternative for new fossil-fueled power construction even before the rule comes into effect. For this reason the EPA does not expect the rule to cause any increased costs for the energy companies or for the end users.

The new legislation does not however apply to existing power plants, which today account for more than one third of U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, nor for already permitted new plants that begin construction within twelve months from the introduction of the rule. There is also room for so-called flexibility, instead of calculating emissions as annual averages, it will be possible to use the average over a thirty-year period and emit more than the limit for the first ten years if emissions can be greatly reduced later.

Despite these limitations, the new rule is praised by Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club: “These first-ever carbon pollution standards for new power plants mean that business as usual for the nation’s biggest sources of carbon pollution, dirty coal-burning utilities, is over.”

A more critical view is given by the Washington Post, but they argue that the rule’s limitations cannot be blamed on the agency: “You can’t fault the EPA for not pursuing a more ambitious carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, though: It’s far from clear it has the statutory authority to do so, even on a sector-by-sector basis. The fault lies with Congress, which has failed to establish anything resembling a comprehensive energy policy.”

That EPA has been able to propose this rule is the result of a decision by the Supreme Court in 2007, which determined that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act and can be regulated if emissions threaten public health and welfare.

Kajsa Lindqvist

The rule is open for public comment until 25 June 2012.

In this issue