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FAQ: What's this New EPA Carbon Pollution Standard All About?

Dan Lashof

Posted September 20, 2013

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Click here to take actionToday, Administrator Gina McCarthy is announcing EPA’s new proposal to limit carbon pollution from future power plants. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions.  

Q. What's this new EPA carbon standard all about?

A. We have an obligation to protect future generations from the costs and risks of climate change. It's the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. It's already imposing large and growing costs on our country. It's putting our future at risk.

The single most important thing we can do about it is to reduce the dangerous carbon pollution from our single greatest source, our nation's power plants.


Q. What exactly does this new standard accomplish?

A. It will set carbon standards - for the first time ever - for new power plants - those we build in the future. That means the electricity of tomorrow won't come at the expense of our children's future.


Q. Does this put an end to coal as a power generating fuel?

A. The market for new coal-fired plants has already dried up, due to lower cost options like natural gas, wind and investments in energy efficiency. Wind and natural gas, for example, have accounted for more than 70 percent of our new generating capacity over the past two and a half years, and that proportion is rapidly rising.

What this rule does is to put an end to the long era of unlimited carbon pollution from the nation's power plants. That's a step forward - and we're better for it.


Q. Why do you say unlimited carbon pollution?

A. Until today, there were no limits on the amount of carbon pollution a power plant could release. That's not safe. It's not right. It needs to be fixed.

This rule sets limits on new power plants.

Next, we need to limit the carbon pollution from existing plants. They account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint. And, yet, there are no limits on this carbon pollution from existing plants.

That doesn't make sense. We limit the amount of mercury, arsenic and soot these plants release. Why shouldn't we limit the carbon pollution that is driving climate chaos?


Q. How can a new coal-fired power plant meet these carbon limits?

A. There are three main ways to hit the target.

  • First, carbon can be captured - or "scrubbed" - from emissions before they leave the smoke stack.
  • Second, coal can be used to produce a gas, with carbon removed from it, that burns much cleaner than coal itself.
  • Third, coal can be burned in pure oxygen, instead of air, and the carbon removed from emissions.


Q. How effective are these technologies?

A. Each approach can cut carbon emissions by 90 percent or more. Most coal plants could meet the new carbon standard by reducing emissions by 65 percent or less, so these technologies can do the job, and then some.


Q. Is this some kind of George-Jetson stuff?

A. It's already offered commercially by big-name vendors like ABB, Air Products, Fluor, Linde, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Praxair, Siemens and others.


Q. So these carbon-reduction technologies are already being used commercially in places?

A. Yes, already operating in places like Alabama, Maryland and Oklahoma. There are pilot projects up and running in West Virginia, Wisconsin and other places. And there are still others being planned or built in Mississippi, Texas, California and elsewhere. See here for more details.


Q. What does this mean for the price of electricity?

A. Consumers won't see any difference. As always, utilities should find the most cost-effective way to add new generating capacity. In most cases, that will be energy efficiency, natural gas and wind.  

Ultimately, rates are set by public utility commissions in each state.  

The cost of new generating capacity generally plays a small role, compared to the costs of existing equipment and of transmitting and delivering the power.


Q. Is there a market for the carbon pollution that's captured from power plant emissions?

A. Yes. Oil producers use CO2 to help force crude oil out of aging wells that have lost the natural pressure needed to bring crude to the surface. The CO2 extends the life of the wells—reducing the need to drill in new areas--then stays locked up underground.

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