The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a historic climate policy proposal on Thursday. Through a new rule, the Biden Administration intends to set limits on coal- and gas-fueled power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.
Generally, the EPA regulates polluting emissions like carbon monoxide and ozone. But the agency has exercised limited authority over planet-warming carbon dioxide in the past. Currently, the sole Clean Air Act provision on the books that concerns power plants and greenhouse gasses only covers new or meaningfully modified facilities. If finalized and enacted, this week’s proposed regulation would be the first to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
It’s undoubtedly big news for the energy industry and the U.S.’s carbon footprint. The power sector is the biggest stationary source (i.e. fixed and unmoving fount) of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Energy production emits 25% of all domestic GHG emissions, according to 2021 EPA data, and is second only to transportation in its impact. Almost all of these emissions are the result of burning fossil fuels. Through the proposed rule, the federal agency estimates 617 million metric tons of CO2 emissions would be avoided by 2042—about the same as 137 million cars’ annual output.
But, as with basically all federal environmental policies, it comes with some major caveats. It doesn’t make any demands of small, often harmful “peaker” plants. It won’t get rid of all the power sector’s emissions, even if every goal within it is achieved. For environmental and climate advocates, it is not fast nor comprehensive enough. (As EPA administrator Michael Regan said proudly in his announcement of the new policy: “Our work is not sacrifice. These are not restrictions.”)
One of the biggest potential downsides is that the proposal leans heavily on the idea that fossil fuel-powered plants don’t need to transition to renewables to get us to Biden’s Net-Zero by 2050 goal. Instead, these plants have the option to reduce their emissions through carbon capture and storage—a controversial climate strategy that’s so far mostly proven to be a waste of money and time.
What’s Up With Carbon Capture?
There are two major types of carbon capture. Direct air capture sucks CO2 straight from the atmosphere and sequesters it for safekeeping. The tech has lots of problems of scalability, cost, and efficacy, and isn’t a part of this new proposal. Then there’s carbon capture and storage (CCS), which aims to tackle carbon pollution at the source and prevent CO2 emissions from ever entering the atmosphere from smokestacks, industrial facilities, and power plants. Unfortunately, though CCS might seem less inherently sci-fi than giant, ambient air scrubbers, it also has massive issues of scalability, cost, and efficacy.
The big push for CCS technology began in the 1980s, marketed by the Department of Energy as “clean coal technology,” said Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist and the executive director at the climate and decarbonization nonprofit Project Drawdown, in a phone call with Earther. And in the decades since, there’s been very little to show for all the billions of dollars of investment that have gone into it. At basically every turn, instituting carbon capture has proved more complicated, more expensive, and less impactful than expected.
There are only 12 currently operational CCS projects in the U.S. Sucking up a single metric ton of carbon emissions at one of these facilities costs between $50 and $100. In 2021, emissions from the U.S. energy sector equalled about 1.65 billion tonnes—meaning using CCS to zero out emissions would cost somewhere on the order of $124 billion each year, not including the sizable upfront cost of building out and retrofitting power plants. Actually running the CCS technology takes a lot of energy itself. And all that effort might not even work to combat climate change. There are frequent issues of leaks, breakdowns, and finding adequate storage for all that CO2. Often, companies redirect captured gas toward enhanced oil recovery, which means more fossil fuel is extracted, thanks to CCS.
There are specific applications wherein many agree that carbon capture is important. Decarbonizing cement and steel production, for instance, will likely require some version of CCS. But the power sector doesn’t necessarily need carbon capture to become GHG-free, multiple experts told Earther.
“Why would we want to spend enormous sums of money on carbon capture projects, which time and time again have proven to be big boondoggles of public money, usually, and rate payer money?” asked Foley. It would be cheaper, he pointed out, to just swap natural gas and coal for renewables.
What Might the EPA Policy Do?
The Biden Admin’s new policy doesn’t mandate CCS. Instead, it sets benchmarks for GHG emissions reductions by 2035 and 2038, and offers that fossil fuel companies could achieve those reductions through one of three pathways: shutting down operations and transitioning to renewables, co-firing “low-GHG hydrogen” (which has its own issues), or carbon capture. The stated goal of the proposal is climate change mitigation and emissions reductions. Yet, combined with the subsidies and financial incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and other recently passed legislation, some experts see the EPA’s proposal as motivating more carbon capture, offering fossil fuel corporations an avenue through which to keep chugging along.
Broadly, Foley says he thinks the new policy is a good thing. Recognizing CO2 as a pollutant and passing regulatory measures within the power sector are important. But he’s worried that carbon capture is a dangerous distraction. “It just seems like a further path for delay to what ultimately needs to happen, which is to just phase out fossil fuel production altogether.”
Steven Feit, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, generally agrees with Foley’s fears. He told Earther he’s concerned that, by focusing on CCS, the EPA could be unnecessarily ensuring the continuation of fossil fuel dominance in the energy grid for the next 10 years. Power plants that opt to do this will be making a big investment in a technology that hasn’t demonstrated clear, beneficial results. “If you build out a huge CCS system and it doesn’t work, you don’t just then say ‘oh well, close up shop.’” Instead, he imagines these plants will keep pushing and producing dirty power. How the EPA would respond and enforce those future failures remains to be seen.
It’s possible that even the new proposal isn’t enough to make CCS feasible for individual power plants. Chris Greig, a decarbonization researcher at Princeton University with decades of industry experience, thinks that the technology and storage capacity exists to make carbon capture work. Instead, he doubts the economics and geographic limitations of it.
When it comes to carbon capture, “the IRA is full of carrots,” said Greig—whereas this week’s proposal seems to bring the proverbial stick. In his view, both are necessary (and so is some amount of CCS). Yet necessary doesn’t equal sufficient.
For coal plants in particular, the costs of CCS are probably not worth the gains. Greig told Gizmodo he believes the proposed EPA policy will likely force the shutdown of many coal plants. “I think you’re going to see coal phasing out,” he said. Obviously, this is a good thing for climate. The uncertainty of the proposal’s impacts, though, is higher for gas.
Because U.S. natural gas is comparatively cheaper for fossil fuel companies to extract, produce, and deliver, Greig said he sees a distinct possibility that some gas plants opt for that option. It’s not a guarantee, and underground carbon storage simply isn’t doable everywhere, but it could happen. “I don’t know if this will lead to [natural gas plants] installing CCS or closing down. Time will tell.”
First though, the regulation has to be enacted. Despite being meaningfully different and narrower in scope than Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year, this new greenhouse gas standard is still near-certain to face legal challenges from fossil fuel interests. A big power plant battle is on its way—but even if the EPA wins, it might not be a total climate win.