New Limits on Dirty Power Plants

Last Tuesday, the Obama Administration introduced the first-ever limits on heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from new coal-burning power plants. Current coal plants are estimated to produce anywhere from 1,800 to 2,250 pounds of CO2 for each megawatt hour of electricity. Under the new regulation, coal plants built after 2013 will be required to emit a maximum 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will still allow new plants to maintain emissions above the 1,000 pound limit if operators agree that they will average below that level over a 30-year period.

To acheive the reduction, new plants will have to incorporate the added costs of expensive carbon-capture technology, which could either prompt them to shut down completely or convert to natural gas. A new natural gas-fired power plant can meet the new emissions standard without installing additional controls. According to the EPA’s proposed ruling report, with the “significantly lower price of natural gas, energy industry modeling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future. For these economic reasons, and independent of this proposed standard, the fossil fuel-fired electricity generating industry has been trending towards increased use of natural gas and decreased use of coal for new generating capacity.”

“It’s a strong move,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. “It means there will never be another coal plant built without new technology, and it probably means even those won’t be built because they can’t compete.”

EPA will not demand these regulations on existing coal power plants, which are responsible for nearly 40% of CO2 emissions and the majority of airborne mercury emissions in the United States. Mercury is a neurotoxin especially harmful to young children, where it has been found to impair brain development and cause developmental disorders, including autism and cerebral palsy. According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution was estimated to cause 1.34 million premature deaths worldwide in 2008, including nearly 24,000 deaths in the United States. Health problems associated with outdoor air pollution include lung cancer, heart attacks, acute respiratory symptoms and aggravated asthma.

“Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies – and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow. We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids.”