Prove your humanity

The Biden administration’s recent announcement that it would hold off on regulating carbon emissions from existing natural gas-fired power plants means the agency will wait until after the election to regulate one of Pennsylvania’s largest sources of carbon pollution.

These existing gas power plants account for two-thirds of the CO2 emissions from power plants in the state, and 45 percent nationwide.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new climate rules for power plants. But in a decision that disappointed some environmental groups, the agency said it would leave existing natural gas plants out of the regulation. 

Rules for these plants would come in a separate regulation, which would not be finalized until well after the November election.

Instead, the power plant regulations will focus on new gas plants and coal plants, the sector’s biggest polluter. 

Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania, praised the EPA’s decision.

“It’s welcome news that the EPA recognizes the critical role of natural gas in maintaining electric grid reliability,” Caratino Wissman said, in an emailed statement. “Our industry continues to innovate and implement new technologies to accelerate emissions reductions.” 

Carbon emissions of gas plants

Overall, the electricity sector is the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., behind transportation, accounting for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases. It is now dominated by natural gas, which has overtaken coal as the nation’s largest source of electricity

But coal, which emits about twice the carbon dioxide that gas does, is still the country’s largest source of electricity-related carbon emissions. Coal accounts for about 53 percent of the power sector’s CO2 emissions while only accounting for 16 percent of the country’s electricity. Gas, meanwhile, produces about 45 percent of the sector’s emissions and 43 percent of the nation’s electricity. 

Overall emissions from Pennsylvania power plants have declined more than 40 percent since 2005, as coal plants have been replaced by natural gas. In 2020, natural gas plants account for two-thirds of CO2 emissions from power plants, while coal only accounts for about one-third.

Scientists worldwide say governments and industries need to rapidly slash planet-warming pollution in order to avoid the most extreme impacts of climate change.

The proposed power plant rule would require coal and new gas plants to lower or capture their carbon emissions by 2040. They are expected to be finalized in April. 

The EPA estimates the rule would cut more than 600 million metric tons of CO2 pollution, about 12 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas footprint, and prevent 1,300 premature deaths a year by 2030. 

Environmental groups respond

The agency’s decision to separate out existing plants was met with mixed response from environmental advocates. 

“This rule constitutes important, but incremental and incomplete, progress on power plant emissions at the expense of people and wildlife,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. “The cost of excluding existing natural gas power-plant pollution from this rule will be measured in shorter life expectancies, hospital bills, climate-fueled disasters, and degrees of global warming.”

Jason Rylander, legal director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the decision to exclude the nation’s fleet of natural gas plants from the rule “unfortunate.”

“It appears EPA won’t be able to issue any rules on existing plants until after the election. And so you have no idea how the election is going to go, or if that rule will ever be implemented,” Rylander said. 

Rylander said any future rule for existing plants was expected to include limits for other pollutants like soot and formaldehyde that can impact fenceline communities.

“With the concerns that have been expressed by many of the environmental justice groups and communities that would be most affected by these plants, there’s certainly a good argument, for taking the time and developing a more comprehensive approach, for existing gas plants,” Rylander said. 

Julie McNamara, deputy policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said EPA should take a holistic approach to all of the various pollutants that natural gas plants produce.

“I think they are understanding that there are these different sources of pollution from gas plants, and they need to develop an approach that thinks about all of those at once,” McNamara said. 

Complicated history of trying to regulate carbon

The rules are the latest in a two-decade effort to get the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling forced the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, the main cause of the climate crisis. In late 2009, the agency issued its endangerment finding–which concluded that greenhouse gases – and global warming – ”threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

But the agency has struggled to find a legal pathway to regulate carbon emissions from the power sector. The Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which sought to shift power production to cleaner sources, was stayed by the Supreme Court in 2016 and withdrawn by the Trump administration. 

Trump’s EPA created its own replacement–the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which was eventually thrown out by a court for being too lax on emissions. 

Enter the Biden administration, which has had to formulate a rule in the wake of a conservative 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in 2022, which severely limited the agency’s tools in regulating carbon. 

That ruling, West Virginia vs. EPA, has put a strain on what EPA can do, said McNamara.

“It cannot be understated the degree to which the Supreme Court has undermined EPA’s ability to do its job,” McNamara said. 

McNamara said the nation’s existing gas plants have to be brought under climate rules soon. 

“There has to be accountability because we will not be able to meet our climate targets if gas plants are allowed to run unabated long into the future.”