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Coal-Burning Power Plants Face Strict Emissions Limits

Ambitious new rules to combat climate change will require coal-fired power plants to capture almost all carbon dioxide emissions or shut down.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced the new final rules, which are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to help the U.S. reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. However, the rules could accelerate the retirement of operating coal-fired plants and the decline of the domestic coal industry.


Transportation and electric power are the two largest sources of GHG emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, according to the EPA.


The new rule will require coal power plants that plan to stay open beyond 2039 to mitigate or capture 90% of CO2 emissions by 2032. Plants that plan to cease operation before 2039 that will have to capture less emissions, and those that will shut down before 2032 do not have to adhere to the rules. Future natural gas or coal-fired plants will also have to meet the 90% rule, although existing natural gas-fired power plants are not included.


The rules are expected to accelerate the decline of coal-fired power plants. Coal use for electric generation has dropped dramatically in recent years, now accounting for just 16.2% of production. That is due to the increase in power plants fired with abundant, cheap natural gas, as well as the rise of renewable energy sources, and coal’s high emissions that have made complying with environmental regulations more expensive. Natural gas now accounts for 43% of electric production nationally, and in Pennsylvania, which in home to the Marcellus play, it accounts for 52% of production. Natural gas is also a fossil fuel, but emits much less CO2 than coal.


The stringent rules will result in “reductions of 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon pollution overall through 2047, which is equivalent to preventing the annual emissions of 328 million gasoline cars, or to nearly an entire year of emissions from the entire U.S. electric power sector. It also projects up to $370 billion in climate and public health net benefits over the next two decades,” the EPA stated in a release.


Several other rules to improve air and water quality from coal-fired plants were also announced, including tighter standards for mercury and toxic metals from certain plants; reductions in wastewater pollution from power plants, and safe management of coal ash disposal areas that can leach into groundwater.


The new regulations do not mandate the use of particular technologies, but the EPA release states that “the best system of emission reduction for the longest-running existing coal units and most heavily utilized new gas turbines is based on carbon capture and sequestration/storage (CCS) – an available and cost-reasonable emission control technology that can be applied directly to power plants and can reduce 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from the plants.” However, CCS is still in the developmental phase, has not been widely deployed at scale, and is currently very costly.


The continued retirement of fossil-fuel powered electric plants also raises more concerns about the reliability of the electric grid, which is seeing increasing demand at the same time as strict regulations are constraining generation.


While the new regulations were praised by environmental groups, coal industry representatives and some legislators said they will force the closure of operating plants and fail to take into account grid reliability and surging power demand. The regulations are expected to be met with legal challenges.

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