May 25, 2024

A quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from electricity generation. The biggest polluters in the sector are the country’s coal-fired power plants — decades-old facilities that release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Federal regulators and policymakers have spent years coming up with a plan to reduce emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency finally announced the results of this work last week: a historical series of rules which aims to prevent 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2047, the equivalent of annual emissions from 328 million gas cars.

The new rules were finalized under several laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, they are expected to significantly reduce air, water and land pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants by preventing toxic discharges into rivers and streams, better controlling coal ash pollution and reducing toxic mercury emissions.

Of the four new rules, one in particular sets a new precedent by being the first to require the implementation of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, so that certain existing plants can continue to operate. Among the facilities covered by the rules are the more than 200 coal-fired power plants across the country that are collectively responsible for more than half of the energy sector’s carbon emissions. According to the regulations, the companies operating these facilities have three options: they can capture 90 percent of their emissions and keep running past 2039, capture a smaller portion of emissions and close by 2039, or continue as normal and to retire by 2032.

Carbon capture and storage is a complex, multi-site process that involves capturing the gas at the point of release and routing it underground to a well where it is injected for long-term storage. And so some climate advocates fear the rule will only extend the lives of power plants that run on fossil fuels.

Other critics of the EPA’s rules question the technology’s effectiveness, pointing out that it has never been deployed on a commercial scale. Despite the hundreds of millions in tax incentives awarded by the Biden administration to spur the development of CCS, there are currently no operations in the US that capture a significant portion of a facility’s emissions. The fossil fuel giant Occidental Petroleum quietly abandoned its largest CCS facility in Pecos County, Texas, last October, selling it for a fraction of its construction cost. Elsewhere, Chevron’s massive operation on Barrow Island off the coast of Western Australia is successfully capturing carbon, but challenges in the underground storage system have led to only store 1.6 million tons per year, less than half of its capacity.

Still, some other climate advocates say the rule fits well with their overall strategy: Carbon capture and storage is such an expensive endeavor that some of the nation’s oldest and largest emitters, they hope, will choose to close rather than go under the new rule to work. .

“This is a regulation that seems to be mostly about CCS,” said Emily Grubert, a civil engineer and environmental sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. But Grubert believes that the rule can be used for other purposes: “The goal of the climate movement is that it is about plant retirement.”

Grubert told Grist that many of the operators of these plants are unlikely to choose to retrofit their facilities with CCS, as adopting the technology could cost companies more than $1 billion.

“I don’t want to see carbon capture put on the coal plants. The US coal fleet is very old,” Grubert told Grist. “When you’re talking about billions of dollars of investment on these plants, it almost certainly guarantees they’ll stay open longer than they otherwise would have.”

Advocates living in communities near CCS infrastructure along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana applauded some aspects of the new rule, but were concerned about the safety of the new technology. Carbon capture and storage involves a complex network of industrial equipment, underground pipelines and injection wells, each of which has its own risks. When a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide burst in February 2020 in Mississippi, dozens of people were rushed to the hospital after experiencing shortness of breath. A similar incident took place with an Exxon Mobil-owned pipeline in southwest Louisiana last month. With the EPA’s recent decision to give industry-friendly Louisiana the authority to approve new carbon dioxide wells, advocates worry that the majority-Black communities that live along much of the South’s fossil fuel infrastructure will have another pollution hazard in their midst.

“We’re looking at a perfect storm,” said Beverly Wright, the executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “You have this new shiny object that is going to solve all our problems by pumping the carbon into the ground. But whose land?”

Existing coal plants have until 2032 to implement CCS and reduce or shut down their carbon emissions by 90 percent. Some politicians have indicated they are determined to fight these requirements and keep the nation’s coal fleet running without reducing emissions. When the rules were initially proposed last year, a group of Republican attorneys general led by Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan a letter says the regulations will “kill jobs, raise energy prices and harm energy reliability.” Morrisey threatened to challenge the EPA’s final decision in court last week. Separately, Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from West Virginia, said she plans to to draft a resolution opposing the rules. But beyond the potential legal and congressional challenges, CCS technology will need to evolve significantly over the next decade to be used on a commercial scale.

Still, Grubert told Grist that it’s important not to write off CCS entirely. While solar and wind farms could replace the nation’s dilapidated coal plants, there are currently few alternatives to cleaning up large emitters such as cement manufacturing plants. In her ideal scenario, the new EPA rules would encourage coal plants to go offline within the next decade, while spurring investment in other sectors where carbon capture may be needed in the interim to reduce global warming emissions.

“I think, paradoxically, that we should be able to implement some degree of CCS,” Grubert said. “Having a regulatory framework and a regulatory environment that ensures carbon storage is safe and well communicated to people is a good idea.”

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