EPA plans to ease carbon emissions rules for new coal-fired power plants

Key Points
  • EPA proposes easing carbon dioxide emissions rules for new coal-fired power plants.
  • Existing rules require new coal plants to use carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that has not been proven at commercial scale.
  • There are currently no plans to build new coal-fired power plants in the United States.
Piles of coal sit in front of Pacificorp's 1440 megawatt coal fired power plant on October 9, 2017 in Castle Dale, Utah.
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The Environment Protection Agency on Thursday announced plans to ease rules for new coal plants, marking the Trump administration's latest effort to roll back Obama-era climate regulations.

The EPA's proposal would allow newly built power plants to pump more planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It would scrap a 2015 provision that requires coal-burning plants to capture carbon emissions and store the greenhouse gas underground, a technology that has not been proven at commercial scale.

"By replacing onerous regulations with high, yet achievable, standards, we can continue America's historic energy production, keep energy prices affordable, and encourage new investments in cutting-edge technology that can then be exported around the world," acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.

The move is largely symbolic. There are currently no plans to build new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The facilities not only faced higher regulatory burdens during the Obama administration, but stiff competition from cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

This year, U.S. coal consumption fell to its lowest in 39 years. Between 2007 and 2017, the United States retired 55 gigawatts of its total capacity of 313 gigawatts of coal-fired power. In 2018 alone, another 14 gigawatts are scheduled to come offline.

"Today's proposal is nothing more than another thoughtless attempt by the Trump Administration to prop up their backwards and false narrative about reviving coal at the expense of science, public safety, and reality," Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

The EPA finalized rules in 2015 that would limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants to 1,400 pounds per megawatt hour of electric power. To achieve that ambitious target, the agency required plants to capture at least 20 percent of emissions using so-called carbon capture and storage technology.

Carbon capture and storage involves scrubbing emissions from smokestacks and sequestering them underground. The technology is in limited use, largely because of the massive amounts of energy needed to capture carbon and the challenges of storing it.

Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said the Obama Administration's determination was "disingenuous" because it "knew that the technology was not adequately demonstrated."

EPA's proposal would lift the limit to 1,900 pounds per megawatt hour. The Trump administration would allow coal-fired facilities to use proven technology to hit the targets.

The Trump administration has already started the process of replacing the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama's signature effort to fight climate change by governing emissions from existing power plants.

President Donald Trump has sought to boost the use of fossil fuels and rejects the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is man-made. He recently dismissed a sweeping report issued by U.S. government agencies that concluded the impacts of climate change could shrink the American economy by as much as 10 percent by 2100.