Power plants may face emission limits for the first time if EPA rules pass

If finalized, these regulations could keep 617 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas out of the air.
Smoke stacks from a power plant emit smoke.
The electricity sector generates about 25 percent of all greenhouse gas pollution in the United States. Deposit Photos

On May 11, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose new limits on the greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants. Second only to the nation’s transportation sector, the electricity sector generates about 25 percent of all greenhouse gas pollution in the US

[Related: Renewable energy is climbing in the US, but so are our emissions—here’s why.]

According to the EPA, the proposal for coal and new natural gas power plants would keep up to 617 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide from spilling into the air through 2042. This is the equivalent to reducing the annual emissions of about half the cars in the United States. The EPA estimates that the net climate and health benefits of these new standards on new gas and existing coal-fired power plants are up to $85 billion through 2042.

“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and wellbeing,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future. Alongside historic investment taking place across America in clean energy manufacturing and deployment, these proposals will help deliver tremendous benefits to the American people—cutting climate pollution and other harmful pollutants, protecting people’s health, and driving American innovation.”

The new rules will likely not mandate the use of technologies that capture carbon emissions before they leave a smokestack, such as direct air capture. It will instead set caps on pollution rates that planet operators will have to meet by either using a different technology or switching to a fuel source like green hydrogen. 

The new limits represent the Biden administration’s most ambitious effort to date to roll back the pollution from the US’ second-largest contributor to climate change. It also follows the current administration’s plans to cut car tailpipe emissions by speeding up the transition to mostly elective vehicles and curb methane leaks from gas and oil wells.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is adding over $370 billion into clean energy programs and the administration hopes that these new actions push the US further in the fight to constrain further human-made global warming.  

[Related: At New York City’s biggest power plant, a switch to clean energy will help a neighborhood breathe easier.]

These investments and regulations could put the US on track to meet President Biden’s pledge that the US will cut greenhouse gasses in half by 2030 and stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050. While more policies are needed to reach the 2050 target, scientists say these goals must be met by all major industrialized nations to keep average global temperatures from increasing by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit compared with pre industrial levels. Beyond that temperature tipping point, catastrophic flooding, drought, heat waves, flooding, species extinction, and crop failure will become significantly harder for humanity to handle. Earth has already warmed by two degrees Fahrenheit.

If these regulations are finalized, they would mark the first time that the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. It extends to all current and future electric plants as well. 

The plan will face steep opposition from the fossil fuel industry and Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.

Despite these proposed new regulations, Biden has also faced criticism from many environmentalists for the decision to approve the Willow oil project in Alaska this March. Environmental groups call this massive oil drilling plan by ConocoPhillips a “carbon bomb” that could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day. 

Many younger voters and young climate activists say Biden broke a major 2020 campaign promise by approving Willow. With this in mind, EPA officials will announce these new regulations at the University of Maryland.