EPA to delay and strengthen climate change rule for gas power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to delay final limits on planet-warming emissions from gas-fired power plants to significantly strengthen them, the agency announced Thursday.

The decision means that the rule — a crucial part of President Biden’s climate agenda — probably won’t be finalized until after November, so its fate will rest on the outcome of the 2024 election.

The move comes in response to pleas from environmental justice groups, which said the rule was not protective enough of disadvantaged communities that have breathed unhealthy air for decades. Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately located near gas plant smokestacks and other sources of industrial pollution.

It also comes as President Biden tries to sell voters on his climate record during a bruising reelection campaign against Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner. Polling shows that many voters have never heard of Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, while many young people were outraged by the administration’s approval of a major oil drilling project in Alaska last year.

In May 2023, the EPA issued a proposed rule that called for drastically curbing greenhouse gas emissions from three categories of power plants: existing coal plants, existing gas plants and new gas plants.

The agency said Thursday that it is still on track to finalize the rules for existing coal plants and new gas plants in April. But it said the rule for existing gas plants would take longer and would cover harmful air pollutants in addition to greenhouse gases.

“As EPA works towards final standards to cut climate pollution from existing coal and new gas-fired power plants later this spring, the Agency is taking a new, comprehensive approach to cover the entire fleet of natural gas-fired turbines, as well as cover more pollutants including climate, toxic and criteria air pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

“This stronger, more durable approach will achieve greater emissions reductions than the current proposal,” Regan added.

Power plants rank as the nation’s second-biggest contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. They account for about 25 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by the United States.

According to the EPA, the tougher rules under consideration for existing gas plants would also specifically address pollutants of concern to neighboring communities, such as formaldehyde and lung-damaging nitrogen dioxide.

In a February letter to Biden and Regan, a coalition of leaders in the environmental justice movement had urged the EPA to bolster the standards for existing gas plants.

“EJ communities are host to a wide range of polluting industries, including a majority of the nation’s fossil fuel-derived power sector,” wrote the leaders, including Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is known as the “father of environmental justice” for his pioneering work.

“Many of our communities experience the immediate impacts of living near the existing infrastructure of coal plants, gas plants, pipelines, and extraction and refining facilities,” they wrote. “As a result, achieving EJ should be a central focus of any effort to combat pollution from the power sector.”

Major environmental groups had also criticized the EPA’s proposed rule for covering too few existing gas plants. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Evergreen Action, the proposed rule would have applied to just 5 percent of existing gas turbines, leaving thousands of plants spewing emissions unchecked.

Charles Harper, the senior power sector policy lead at Evergreen Action, called on the EPA to finalize the stronger rules “as quickly as possible” in a statement Thursday.

“While today’s announcement means that the road to federal carbon limits on existing gas plants will be longer than we had hoped, we are confident the administration will finalize standards this spring for key sources, and we’re in this for the long haul,” Harper said.

In contrast, the Edison Electric Institute, the top lobbying group for U.S. utility companies, had asked the EPA to soften the requirements for existing gas plants. The group had argued in public comments that the rules would undermine the reliability of the nation’s aging electric grid, especially as older coal plants continue to retire.

Emily Sanford Fisher, executive vice president for clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement Thursday that “we appreciate that EPA has acknowledged our concerns with the proposed regulations for existing natural gas.”

Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said she understood the need for delaying the requirements for existing gas plants. She noted that the proposed rule would not have covered peaker plants, or higher-emitting gas plants that can ramp up electricity production during periods of peak demand.

“EPA’s approach, which is comprehensive in terms of all gas plants and all the pollution they emit, is the right way forward,” Dillen said.

The question of how to regulate planet-warming pollution from power plants has prompted nearly a decade of legal and political wrangling. In 2015, President Barack Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s electricity sector 32 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

But Republican attorneys general and the utility industry challenged the plan in court, arguing the EPA had overstepped its authorities under the Clean Air Act. In 2016, the Supreme Court took the surprise step of staying the regulation before it could take effect nationwide.

In 2019, the Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan with its own more lenient rule, saying it would lower electricity costs. But in 2021, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia scrapped that regulation. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA can only make sweeping changes to the nation’s power sector with explicit approval from Congress.

Joseph Goffman, who was recently confirmed by the Senate to lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, hinted Monday that the agency would tweak the power plant rules.

“Don’t be surprised if what comes out of this process in some ways looks different than what we’ve proposed,” Goffman told a meeting of utility regulators in Washington.

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