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Far From Cutting Power Plant Emissions, New EPA Rule May Make Things Worse

The rule relies on “carbon capture” technology that hasn’t been proven to work — and may introduce other dangers.

Emissions fume at the coal-fueled Oak Grove Power Plant on April 29, 2024, in Robertson County, Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced standards to cut greenhouse gasses from power plants. The rule requires coal power plants with a retirement date far in the future and new gas power plants that operate for prolonged periods to install carbon capture technology. Coal power plants with impending retirement dates are required to blend fracked gas with coal to reduce emissions, and gas power plants that operate intermittently to address spikes in demand are merely required to make incremental efficiency improvements.

In principle, this is welcome news. The electric power sector is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the United States after transportation, accounting for 25 percent of U.S. emissions. Power-sector emissions aren’t falling fast enough to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which the global scientific community has identified as the maximum allowable temperature increase to limit the worst-case climate catastrophes.

Unfortunately, the new rule issued by EPA still won’t get us there. It will fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions adequately — and will perpetuate the legacy of treating communities as sacrifice zones based on race and class by continuing the use of polluting fossil fuels.

The rule covers existing steam power plants (usually coal-fired, but sometimes oil or gas-fired), and new or reconstructed gas turbine power plants. For existing coal plants scheduled to retire in 2039 or later, the rule sets a target of 88.4 percent reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2032. Likewise, for many new gas turbine power plants, the rule requires a 90 percent reduction.

The problem isn’t with these goals, although the reduction goals for coal plants closer to retirement are far too modest, at only 16 percent. The problem is with how the rule prescribes meeting them. Instead of simply emitting less carbon, the rule directs power plants to “capture” it through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which purportedly removes carbon dioxide from smokestacks using chemical solvents, and then transports it via pipelines in order to bury it underground.

But the technology simply doesn’t work: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the most authoritative sources on climate science, CCS is one of the least effective and most expensive options for mitigating power-sector emissions.

Further, data from already-operating CCS power plants also confirms this conclusion. An International Energy Agency database shows only three operating power plants with CCS worldwide. The largest of these, the Boundary Dam power plant in Canada, has been beset by mechanical failures, leading to only about only one third of its emissions being captured in 2021 — far short of the 90 percent capture rate the system was designed for.

The only operating power plant with CCS in the U.S. was shut down indefinitely after a history of failure — despite collecting nearly $200 million in federal subsidies. Around the same time that the EPA announced their rule, news emerged that another CCS project in Illinois had failed, capturing only about 10 percent of the emissions from a corn ethanol facility, in spite of receiving more than $280 million in public subsidies.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that CCS is a failing technology, there is bipartisan support for it in Congress, and it has been pushed by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The primary tax credit for CCS, known as the 45Q tax credit, was expanded as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, in spite of an investigation by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General that found rampant abuse of the tax credit. The political support for CCS in spite of evidence of failure is likely because of the influence of the fossil fuel industry, which supports CCS as a way to continue producing and burning fossil fuels in spite of concerns about climate change.

But beyond CCS’s failures and politicized funding, the technology has other harmful effects as well. It increases the water consumption of power plants by between 25 and 200 percent, which will divert water needed for drinking and growing food in an age of increasing water scarcity attributable to climate change.

CCS also doesn’t capture toxic air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and mercury, which are responsible for health impacts such as asthma, heart disease, and neurological illnesses. Moreover, because of their higher-energy consumption, power plants with CCS will burn more fuel, potentially increasing particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic emissions. This is terrible news for the often racially and economically marginalized communities who live in the vicinity of power plants.

These aren’t the only legacy environmental injustices that will continue with adoption of CCS. Because adding CCS to a power plant increases its energy consumption, it will require more fuel, such as coal or fracked gas. Now, imagine widespread adoption of CCS in the US power plant sector as a consequence of the EPA rule. Perversely, that would lead to more coal mining and fracking than today. The well-known health and environmental impacts of coal mining and fracking, which disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities, would get even worse.

Besides potentially worsening current environmental hazards, CCS creates new hazards. Pipelines that transport carbon dioxide are susceptible to catastrophic fractures, which could release clouds of asphyxiating gas. There have already been two carbon dioxide pipeline ruptures in the U.S. in recent years, one of which led to 49 people being hospitalized with severe respiratory distress.

The CCS requirement for some power plants isn’t the only flaw in the EPA rule either. For coal-fired power plants retiring before 2039, the rule requires fracked gas co-firing. Fracked gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned, but its complete lifecycle climate impact may be comparable to coal when leaks of methane — a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas — are accounted for. Multiple studies show that the EPA underestimates upstream methane leakage from oil and gas drilling.

Instead of relying on an unproven technology that only enables continued fossil fuel pollution, we need a real transition to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. In the power sector, that would require closing down fossil fuel power plants on an accelerated timeline and replacing them with renewable generation, while ensuring a just transition for impacted workers and communities.

We need to get serious about cutting greenhouse gasses and toxic pollution from power plants. The rule issued by the EPA doesn’t help us get there — and may even make things worse.

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