Important Steps toward Curbing Dangerous Carbon Pollution
Posted November 11, 2011 in Solving Global Warming
This has been a good week for clean air (not so good for the Euro or Penn State).
On Tuesday the White House announced that EPA has submitted a proposed New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for power plant carbon pollution for interagency review (see NRDC president Frances Beinecke’s post here). Yesterday the State Department announced a delay that could spell the end for the Keystone XL dirty oil pipeline (see Frances’ post here). Also yesterday, the Senate rejected measures that would have blocked essential clean air safeguards (see NRDC executive director Peter Lehner’s post here). This crucial victory means that EPA can continue to update clean air standards to protect our health and welfare.
Power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, responsible for about 40 percent of the total. Right now there are no limits on how much dangerous carbon dioxide they can pump into our atmosphere, so following through to set strong standards for both new and existing plants is now the most important global warming decision before the administration (see Jake Schmidt’s post here). In this post I will discuss what strong power plant carbon pollution standards could achieve.
Politicians wired to campaign cash from those with a vested interest in not accepting reality will undoubtedly scream that EPA is overstepping its bounds and assert that any carbon pollution standards will cost jobs, or even make it impossible to keep the lights on. Indeed, the House of Representatives has already passed multiple bills that would keep this standard from ever seeing the light of day if they were enacted. The truth is that EPA is simply following the law and the science to set long-overdue standards, as I told EPA in public comments back in February. And by law EPA must base its standards on pollution control techniques that have been adequately demonstrated. Strong standards will stimulate innovation and investment to modernize our outmoded electricity infrastructure, creating jobs, not costing them.
So what could power plant carbon pollution standards accomplish (assuming that efforts in Congress to prevent EPA from doing its job continue to be held in check)?
EPA’s draft proposal addresses new power plants. It won’t be made public until sometime early next year, when a 90 day interagency review is completed. A strong rule is needed to ensure that no new dirty coal plants are built. As a report out Wednesday from the International Energy Agency shows, we simply can’t afford to lock into multi-billion dollar investments that would spew uncontrolled quantities of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere for decades. For example, a typical 500 MW coal plant would release more than 160 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air over a 50 year lifetime (and many existing coal plants have already been operating for more than 50 years).
A standard that blocks new dirty coal plants shouldn’t be too hard for power companies to accept (of course that doesn’t mean some won’t scream bloody murder anyway). After all, the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast projects that only about four new coal plants (2.3 GW) will be built through 2035 beyond the crop of plants (11.5 GW) that are under construction and expected to be completed by 2012.
That doesn’t mean the new plant standard isn’t important. The current forecast is based on low natural gas prices and an expectation that they will stay that way due to large increases in production using fracking. Just three years ago EIA was projecting that 200 new coal plants (100 GW) would be built by 2030. So getting a strong new source standard on the books is an important hedge against going back to that future if circumstances change again. It would also send an important signal to the international community that dirty coal plants are obsolete and the U.S. is willing to set enforceable standards to back that up.
As important as a good new source standard is, an effective standard for existing sources—also required by law—will be essential to reduce carbon pollution from power plants quickly enough to reduce the risk of catastrophic global warming. We simply can’t count on enough old coal plants retiring anytime in the foreseeable future, even in the face of strong standards for mercury, sulfur, and other pollutants (other than CO2).
The history of the Clean Air Act is replete with exemptions for existing plants based on the expectation that they would soon retire. An expectation that hasn’t been met, over and over again. EPA is finally poised to require existing coal plants to clean up their mercury emissions. Some of the oldest and least efficient plants will decide to retire rather than install mercury controls to come into compliance, but these plants don’t run very much now and in the absence of carbon pollution limits generation could simply shift to other, slightly less old, coal plants. Indeed EPA’s analysis of the effects of its proposed mercury and air toxics standards projects that these standards will only reduce CO2 emissions by one to two percent from otherwise expected levels in 2020 and 2030.
Devising an existing source standard for carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act is more complex than writing the new source standard, and EPA is still negotiating a revised schedule with NRDC and other parties that had sued to enforce the Clean Air Act’s requirement to establish these safeguards. In the meantime, we can develop a benchmark for EPA to aim at by looking at a recent analysis of a “Clean Energy Standard” (CES) similar to the one proposed by President Obama in his last State of the Union address.
The president proposed requiring that 80% of electricity come from “clean” sources by 2035. There are plenty of reasons to argue with his use of the term “clean” (he included nuclear power and partial credit for generation with natural gas), but the proposal would nonetheless drive significant reductions in carbon pollution. EIA’s analysis of a CES set at 80% by 2035 (with detailed specifications requested by Representative Hall) shows that it would reduce CO2 emissions from power plants 24% by 2020 and almost 60% by 2035 relative to EIA’s reference case projection. (Hall specifies several assumptions that drive up the cost of achieving these reductions—no banking of clean energy credits is allowed and existing hydro and nuclear plants are awarded windfall credits—but these assumptions probably don’t affect the emission results very much. Senator Bingaman has requested a similar analysis from EIA, but with more sensible specifications. I will post an update on the Bingaman analysis when it becomes available, which should be sometime in the next couple of weeks).
EIA’s analysis suggests that the CES proposed by President Obama would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide pollution from the power sector if it were enacted. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening in this Congress are approximately nil. But a well designed set of carbon dioxide standards for new and existing sources under the Clean Air Act could achieve similar results. Combined with the strong vehicle pollution standards that the administration has already announced and strong standards to reduce other major sources of heat-trapping gases (including methane and hydrofluorocarbons), plus effective federal and state energy efficiency measures, there is a pathway for achieving serious reductions in total U.S. global warming pollution over the next decade or so without new legislative authority.
This won’t happen unless the public demands it and rallies to defeat Congressional attempts to roll back or block clean air safeguards. At least for now, this seems a lot more winnable than trying to get anything constructive through Congress.
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