EPA rules on coal plants' emissions will require new technology

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, W.V. The Obama administration has unveiled new rules for building new coal and gas plants -- the EPA is expected to require new coal plants to include carbon capture technology.

The nation’s top environmental regulator is set to unveil tougher emissions rules for new coal and natural gas plants today. Coal plants, especially, are a prime source of global warming pollution. And early reports say the Environmental Protection Agency wants to force new ones to bury that pollution.  

Every year, U.S. coal plants emit more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the skies. The EPA’s new emissions limits may be so strict that they effectively  force future coal plants to use a technology that aims CO2 in the opposite direction. It’s called carbon capture and storage. Rather than letting the CO2 go up the stack and into the air, the coal plant would capture it, put it under high pressure and then inject it into the ground, where it can’t fuel global warming.

Lisa Camooso Miller of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity says the technology holds promise but it’s not ready for primetime.  

“At this time it is still not a technology that is in full deployment at a commercial scale,” she says.

Neeraj Gupta, a geologist and senior researcher at Battelle, a research organization in Columbus, Ohio, calls it an emerging technology that is being tested and tried globally. It hasn’t been done “in enough places, at enough of a large scale,” for widespread adoption, he says.

The Norwegian energy company Statoil, however, has been using the technology since the 1990’s to capture CO2 from natural gas wells in the North Sea. Norway, however, taxes carbon dioxide emissions. So the company saves tens of millions of dollars in taxes every year by keeping the CO2 underground. The U.S. has never taxed carbon emissions.

Without that, there’s little incentive for coal-based utilities to invest in the pricey process.

The government has “forced technology” before, however.  MIT’s Howard Herzog says it happened, albeit on a much smaller scale, when the government decided to crack down on the power plant pollution that causes acid rain.

“At that time, it was the same thing,” Herzog says. “Those scrubbers, they were sort of proven in some demonstrations but they were not widely commercial. But they adopted them and now they’re fairly standard technologies.”

Thomas Lorenzen, a former Department of Justice attorney who has helped enforce many provisions of the Clean Air Act,  says the government has also had luck forcing new fuel-saving technologies on the auto industry, despite initial protest. He believes that was riskier than mandating carbon capture. He says there’s little downside to selecting something that is “at the edges” of coal technology, because companies aren’t building new coal plants at the moment.  

Coal’s chief rival, natural gas, is the power industry’s fossil fuel of choice.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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