The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes to amend the standards that must be met by new, modified, and reconstructed electrical power plants to control emissions of greenhouse gases (particularly carbon gas) into the environment.  The new regulations would eliminate systemic requirements for the use of certain advanced technologies to reduce carbon gas pollution, and would impose less stringent requirements on industry than previous regulations issued in 2015.  Comments on the proposed changes must be received by the EPA on or before February 19, 2019 in order to be considered.

Basics & Bullets
  • The Clean Air Act requires that new stationary pollution sources such as power plants and factories meet green house gas emissions standards based on use of the “best system of emissions reduction” (or BSER) by industry.  The EPA determines what is regarded as the BSER and sets specific emissions standards.
  •  In 2015 EPA issued strong CO2 emissions standards for new, modified and reconstructed fossil-fuel-fired electric power plants (steam generating units).
  • These standards were based on performance presumptions for a new, highly efficient technology known as partial carbon capture and storage (CCS).  The EPA concluded that CCS was adequately demonstrated (including being technically feasible) based on experience with the technology in the industrial and power sectors, was widely available, and could be implemented at reasonable cost.
  • EPA’s new proposal contradicts these conclusions and reverses its previous findings with respect to determination of a BSER. 
  • The proposal would substitute a less efficient means of carbon emissions reduction as the applicable BSER for newly constructed electrical power generating units, and would accordingly revise performance standards for the electrical power industry to allow a higher level of carbon emissions. 
  • Under the 2015 regulations, newly constructed coal-fired EGUs were limited to emissions of no more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. The proposed new standard would be raised to 1,900 MWh.
  • The proposal would relax the emissions reduction performance standards standards for new and modified coal plants to levels that can easily be achieved using older and less efficient technologies than CCS.
  • The principal rationale for these regulatory revisions is cost savings for industry.
  • Damage to the environment from these potential regulatory revisions may be mitigated  by the fact that the revisions apply to fossil-fuel-fired (coal-fired) electrical power plants, which are much more expensive to build and to run than plants that use natural gas or renewables to generate electricity.  If no (or very few) new coal-fired plants are built in the United States, and owners do not invest significantly in upgrading their existing coal-burning plants, the revised regulations EPA proposes could have very limited actual impact.
Summary of the Proposed Regulations:

The EPA proposes to revise several portions of existing regulations entitled “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New, Modified, and Reconstructed Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units (EGUs),” which were issued in final form on October 23, 2015.  Most significantly, for newly constructed fossil fuel-fired electric utility steam generating units that are either utility boilers or integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units, the EPA proposes to alter its previous determination of what constitutes the “best system of emissions reduction” (BSER) for those power plants.  This change in the BSER necessarily requires a corresponding change (an increase) in the level of carbon gas emissions permitted by the regulatory standard EPA previously set for those electrical power generating facilities.

The 2015 regulations determined that a new, highly efficient technology known as partial carbon capture and storage (CCS) was the BSER, and established emissions standards for new facilities that were predicated on use of that technology.  The newly proposed regulations would revise the BSER to be “the most efficient demonstrated steam cycle (i.e., supercritical steam conditions for large EGUs and best available subcritical steam conditions for small EGUs)”  in combination with the “best operating practices,” instead of partial CCS.  Based on the proposed revisions to the BSER, the EPA is also proposing to establish revised (i.e., higher) emission rates as the standards of performance for large and small EGUs. Further, for EGUs that undertake a reconstruction, EPA  proposes to revise the applicable standards to consist of higher emission rates for large and small EGUs, so as to be consistent with the standards revisions for newly constructed EGUs. The EPA further proposes to set separate standards of performance for newly constructed and reconstructed coal refuse-fired EGUs. Although not proposing to revise the BSER identified in the 2015 Rule for fossil fuel-fired electric utility steam generating units that undertake modifications resulting  in an increase in hourly emissions of more than 10 percent (defined as large modifications), EPA proposes to revise the “maximally stringent standards”  (that is, the level that is the most stringent that the standard can be) to achieve consistency with the proposed revised standards for new and reconstructed EGUs.  Additionally, the EPA proposes minor amendments to the applicability criteria for combined heat and power (CHP) and non-fossil EGUs to reflect the original intended coverage.

EPA’s Justification for the Proposed Regulatory Revision:

According to the EPA, the primary reason for this proposed revision is the high costs and limited geographic availability of CCS. This stance directly contradicts the EPA’s own statements during the previous Administration. when EPA specifically concluded that CCS was adequately demonstrated (including being technically feasible) based on experience with the technology in the industrial and power sectors, was widely available, and could be implemented at reasonable cost.

Additional Information and Resources:

In order to form your opinion about the amended regulations proposed by EPA, you may wish to compare the discussion of the technological and cost issues set out in the recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with the very different explanations and presentation of facts that accompanied EPA’s issuance of the Final Regulations the Agency now seeks to change. It may be worth noting that while the 2015 Rule chose partial CCS as the BSER on which to base emissions standards, it also identified other technologies as alternative methods of compliance with the standards (e.g.,natural gas co-firing or IGCC technology worth noting thatThe EPA did not choose natural gas co-firing or IGCC technology (either with natural gas co-firing technology or integrated gasification combined cycle, known as IGCC).

Particularly informative explanations and discussions of the proposed new rules can be found on the websites of Vox, as well as Save EPA (an organization of former EPA employees). Other articles about the EPA’s proposal and it’s significance have appeared in The New York Times, as well as the Houston Chronicle and The Hill.  As these other sources point out, the proposal appears to be an attempt to revitalize and support the declining U.S. coal industry.  However, the extent to which the action could have any real beneficial effect on the coal industry, as opposed to representing an essentially ineffectual gesture, is unclear.

If you are ready to comment on the proposed rules —

The easiest way to comment on the EPA’s proposal is to visit the Comment Page for that topic on the Government’s eRulemaking website, type your comments into the box provided for that purpose, and follow the other instructions for submission. EPA will only consider comments received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on February 19, 2019.

Other means of transmitting your comments are as follows:

  1. Email comments to a-and-r-docket@epa.gov (be sure to include  “Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495” in the subject line of the message).
  2. Fax comments to (202) 566-9744. ( Fax must be sent to “Attention Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495”)
  3. Send your comments in letter form via U.S.Mail to:  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Docket Center, Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495, Mail Code 28221T, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20460.
  4. Send a comment letter via express mail, commercial delivery, hand delivery, or courier service addressed to EPA Docket Center, EPA WJC West Building, Room 3334, 1301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004. (Reference Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495 in your letter and on the envelope. Delivery verification signatures will be available only during regular business hours.)