The Biden administration proposed new limits Thursday on greenhouse gas emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants. A rule unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency could force power plants to capture smokestack emissions using a technology that has long been promised but is not in widespread use in the U.S.
If finalized, the proposed regulation would mark the first time the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, which generate about 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, second only to the transportation sector. The rule also would apply to future electric plants and would avoid up to 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2042, equivalent to annual emissions of 137 million passenger vehicles, the EPA said.
Almost all the coal plants – along with large, frequently used gas-fired power plants – would have to cut or capture nearly all their carbon dioxide emissions by 2038, the EPA said. Plants that cannot meet the new standards would be forced to retire.
The plan is likely to be challenged by industry groups and Republican-leaning states, which have accused the Democratic administration of overreach on environmental regulations and warn of a pending reliability crisis for the electric grid.
Coal provides about 20% of U.S. electricity, down from about 45% in 2010. Natural gas provides about 40% of U.S. electricity. The remainder comes from nuclear energy and renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower.
Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. investor-owned electric companies, said carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector are at the same level as in 1984, while electricity use has climbed 73% since then.
The EPA rule would not mandate use of equipment to capture and store carbon emissions – a technology that is expensive and still being developed – but instead would set caps on carbon dioxide pollution that plant operators would have to meet. Some natural gas plants could start blending gas with another fuel source such as hydrogen, which does not emit carbon, although specific actions would be left to the industry.
The scope of the power plant rule is immense. About 60% of the electricity generated in the U.S. last year came from burning fossil fuels at the nation’s 3,400 coal and gas-fired plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.