EPA Chief Offers Glimpse Into Climate Rules for Existing Power Plants

Amy Harder

The Obama administration's climate-change rules targeting existing power plants will look vastly different from the ones Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced Friday.

The rules McCarthy unveiled last week, which apply only to plants not yet built, will require new coal-fired power plants to install costly technology called carbon, capture, and sequestration (known as CCS), which captures and stores carbon emissions underground instead of emitting the carbon into the atmosphere.

By contrast, the rules EPA is scheduled to unveil next summer will not require this technology, McCarthy told reporters at a breakfast briefing Monday hosted by TheChristian Science Monitor.

The distinction is important but sometimes overlooked as critics of President Obama's climate-change agenda roundly pan the entire effort as a war against coal. The rules are poised to help reduce coal's share of the electricity pie—right now it's about 42 percent—over the next several decades. But coal-fired power is already facing significant challenges competing with natural gas, which accounts for 50 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal and, for right now, is both cheap and plentiful.

"It is really safe to say, if you read the rule, that CCS is really effective as a tool to reduce emissions when it is designed with the facility itself," McCarthy said in response to a question about whether EPA's rules for existing power plants would also require CCS. "It is not seen, at least at this stage, as an add-on that could be used to put on an existing unconventional coal facility."

CCS is considered a prohibitively costly technology that is being demonstrated in only a few places throughout the entire world and is not, for now, commercially available. McCarthy struck an optimistic tune on this issue Monday, just as she did in Friday's announcement, which prompted several questions about the technology's viability.

"CCS is feasible and is available," McCarthy said Monday. "We're not suggesting that it doesn't add cost to coal, compared to conventional coal. But if you're looking at coal being a viable fuel for the future over the next decades, when we believe climate change must be addressed internationally, it does create a path forward."

EPA's rules for the roughly 6,600 power plants operating throughout the country today, including nearly 600 coal-fired plants, will rely on a wholly different method of rule-making compared with the rules announced Friday.

"The new power plant [rule] follows what everyone thinks of the traditional approach that EPA has," McCarthy said. "Set a standard on what science tells you to reduce and also on technology availability."

The rule affecting existing sources, which EPA is scheduled to propose by June 2014, will not be an across-the-country technology standard.

"EPA is supposed to look at guidelines for what kind of reductions nationally are achievable, and then each state is supposed to develop its own plan, take a look at its own suite of activities, and look at what's reasonable," McCarthy said. As potential methods of emissions-cutting states could pursue, McCarthy cited more ambitious energy-efficiency upgrades and integrating more renewable energy into the electric grid.

"We know where the investments in clean energy are going," McCarthy said. "Renewables are getting to a tipping point now where they make great sense."

McCarthy also reacted to the news of a potential government shutdown, which would occur Oct. 1 unless Congress doesn't pass a continuing resolution to keep funding the government.

"It will mean that EPA effectively shuts down with only a core group of individuals who are there in an event of a significant emergency," McCarthy said. "If there is no budget, EPA cannot pay its employees. People will not be working; the vast majority of people will not be working. It's safe to say I will be."