Comments on EPA's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standard for New Power Plants

Below are the comments C2ES submitted on June 25, 2012, on EPA's proposed greenhouse gas emissions standard for new power plants.
 

Comments of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions on
Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for
New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units;
Proposed Rule
United States Environmental Protection Agency

(77 Fed. Reg. 22392 (April 13, 2012))
Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2011-0660; FRL-9654-7

This document constitutes the comments of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) on the proposed standards of performance for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for new electric utility generating units (Proposal), proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published in the Federal Register on April 13, 2012. C2ES is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing practical and effective policies and actions to address our global climate change and energy challenges. As such, the views expressed here are those of C2ES alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC). In addition, the comments made in this document pertain to new sources in the specific industrial sector addressed by the Proposal and may not be appropriate for other industrial sectors or for existing electric utility generating units.
 

Preference for Market-based Policy

C2ES believes market-based policies—such as emissions averaging among companies, a cap-and-trade system, an emissions tax, or a clean energy standard with tradable credits – would be the most efficient and effective way of reducing GHG emissions and spurring clean energy development and deployment. Properly-designed market-based policies create an appropriate division of labor in addressing climate change, with the law establishing the overarching goal of reducing GHG emissions, and private industry determining how best to achieve that goal. Under market-based policies, the government neither specifies a given company’s emission level nor requires the use of any given technology—both of these questions are determined by the company itself.

Beyond providing an incentive for the use of best available technologies, market-based policies provide a direct financial incentive for inventors and investors to develop and deploy lower-cost, clean energy technologies, and leave the private market to determine technology winners and losers. Market-based policies can be designed to minimize transition costs for companies and their customers in moving from high-emitting technologies to low-emitting technologies; to prevent manufacturers in countries without GHG limits from using this as a competitive advantage over U.S. manufacturers; and to reverse any regressive impacts of increased energy prices. At the federal level, market-based policies have been used to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at a fraction of the originally estimated cost, while at the state level they have been used successfully in renewable energy programs and cap-and-trade programs.

However, enactment of federal legislation that would establish a comprehensive market-based policy to reduce GHG emissions does not appear imminent. Given the urgency of addressing the rising risks that climate change poses to U.S. economic, environmental and security interests, C2ES believes that in the absence of Congressional action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, EPA must proceed using its existing authorities under the Clean Air Act.
 

The Context of the Proposal

The Proposal is consistent with the EPA’s authority to implement the Clean Air Act, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. On April 2, 2007, in the case of Massachusetts v. EPA, the court found that the harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized, the EPA has the authority to regulate CO2 and other GHGs under the existing Clean Air Act, and, although enacting regulations may not by itself reverse global warming, that is not a reason for EPA not to act in order to “slow or reduce” global warming.[1]

The Court required that the EPA determine whether GHG emissions from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. The EPA released a draft Technical Support Document (TSD)[2] in 2008 that provided technical analysis of the potential risks of GHGs for human health and welfare and contribution of human activities to rising GHG concentrations, and adopted a final endangerment finding in December 2009. The finding explained and documented the determination that (1) the ambient concentration of six key GHGs—CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)—contribute to climate change, which results in a threat to the public health and welfare of current and future generations, and (2) emissions from motor vehicles contribute to the ambient concentration of the GHGs.

The EPA’s endangerment finding did not, by itself, impose any restrictions on any entities. It was, however, a required step in the EPA’s process of regulating GHG emissions. The EPA has already issued several requirements pertaining to GHG emissions—two as a consequence of the endangerment finding, and two in response to specific Congressional mandates regarding the reporting of GHG emissions.

Reporting CO2 emissions from power plants. Under section 821 of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the EPA requires power plants to monitor their CO2 emissions and report the data to the EPA, which makes the data available to the public. Under this provision, power plants have been reporting their CO2 emissions since the early 1990s, and the data have been made publicly available through the EPA’s website.

GHG Reporting Rule. As part of the Fiscal Year 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed into law in December 2007, the EPA was ordered to publish a rule requiring public reporting of GHG emissions from large sources. The GHG Reporting Program database was published for the first time in January 2012, and consisted of data reported under the rule.

Vehicle tailpipe standards. The first and most direct result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Massachusetts V. EPA and the EPA’s subsequent endangerment finding was the EPA’s promulgation of GHG emissions standards for vehicles. In April 2010, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a joint regulation to establish new light-duty vehicle standards for Model Year (MY) 2012 to MY 2016; in August 2011, they issued the final rulemaking for heavy-duty vehicles for MY 2014-2018; and in November 2011, they issued a joint proposal for light-duty vehicle standards for MY 2017 to MY 2025.

New Source Review/Best Available Control Technology. Under the Clean Air Act, major new sources or major modifications to existing sources must employ technologies aimed at limiting air pollutants. Once GHGs were regulated as air pollutants through the vehicle tailpipe standard, the requirement that new or modified sources must use “best available control technology” (BACT) for GHGs also took effect. In November 2010, the EPA released guidance to be used by states in implementing BACT requirements for GHG emissions from major new or modified stationary sources of air pollution. Under the BACT guidance, covered facilities are generally required to use the most energy-efficient technologies available, rather than install particular pollution control technologies. More than a dozen facilities have received permits under the program.

The Proposal is the first GHG standard proposed by the EPA under the New Source Performance Standard provision of the Clean Air Act. Electric power plants account for about one-third of U.S. GHG emissions—nearly twice the contribution of light-duty vehicles.
 

Comments on the Proposal

C2ES has some concerns with the Proposal, as discussed below. If the concerns are adequately addressed, C2ES supports moving the rule forward.

The EPA should set the emissions standard at a level that can be reliably achieved by currently available technology under reasonably expected operating conditions.

The technology on which the standard in the Proposal is based is natural gas combined cycle (NGCC). It is imperative that the EPA set the GHG emissions standard at a level and in a form that can be reliably achieved by currently available NGCC technology under the full range of reasonably expected operating conditions. A recent study raises questions about the extent to which currently available NGCC units can reliably achieve the standard in the Proposal.[3] In order to maximize the efficiency of the overall interconnected electric system – and often to minimize the overall GHG emissions – it is sometimes necessary to run a particular plant at less than peak efficiency. The standard should reflect this reality.

C2ES agrees that, as proposed, the standard should not cover simple cycle combustion turbines and biomass-fueled boilers.

The standard must be consistent with the advancement of carbon capture and storage technology.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not one of the technologies on which the Proposal’s standard is based. Rather, CCS is a method by which a facility could potentially comply with the NGCC-based standard.

CCS operations have been built at scale in other industrial sectors, but not yet in the electricity sector. The first commercial-scale U.S. power plant with CCS is currently under construction. Power companies are planning several additional CCS projects, some of which will be in conjunction with enhanced oil recovery (EOR). CCS power projects that would supply captured CO2 to EOR are in the planning stages in Texas, Mississippi, California, North Dakota, and Kentucky for the 2014—2020 timeframe. Several more power companies have had plans to build CCS operations that did not go forward primarily because of the cost of CCS and the uncertainty with respect to CO2 emission regulation and legislation.

The Proposal offers an alternative compliance mechanism in which a coal power plant could be operated for 10 years without CCS, followed by 20 years with CCS. While the standard and the alternative compliance mechanism could make it easier for public utility commissions to approve proposals to build coal power plants with CCS, given the current cost and limited demonstration and deployment of CCS technologies, these alone may not be enough to surmount the challenge of financing a plant with CCS. (Please see the discussion of CCS under “Related Matters” below.)

More concerning is the possibility that the standard could inadvertently inhibit the advancement of CCS. For example, one intermediate step in demonstrating the compatibility of CCS with large-scale electricity generation might be to capture and sequester only a fraction of the CO2 from a large coal plant – which might not be allowed under the Proposal. C2ES suggests that the EPA consider mechanisms by which CCS demonstration projects and other operations important to the advancement of CCS could go forward.

Given the unique circumstances of electricity generation today, it is on balance appropriate to set a standard that does not differentiate between fuel types for new power plants. A non-differentiated standard may not, however, be appropriate for other industry sectors or existing sources in this sector.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the Proposal is that it does not issue separate NSPS for coal and natural gas. Under the Clean Air Act, section 111(b)(2), the EPA “may distinguish among classes, types and sizes within categories of new sources for the purpose of establishing [NSPS] standards.” (Emphasis added.) It has in fact typically been the case that Clean Air Act regulations have established separate air pollution standards for coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. While this differentiation is authorized, however, it is not required by the Clean Air Act. Because the proposed rule would apply to new units only, and because prospective owners have options in selecting the designs of their units, fuel switching (i.e., replacing coal use at existing plants with natural gas) would not be required by the rule.

Moreover, recent developments having nothing to do with GHG regulation, such as the availability of inexpensive natural gas and the regulation of other pollutants, have created conditions under which the GHG emissions intensity of electricity generation is declining. Aside from a small number of facilities far along in the planning process and specifically exempt from the Proposal, no new construction of conventional coal plants is  currently foreseen at recent forward market natural gas prices through 2020 (when the Clean Air Act requires that the rule be reevaluated). The Proposal reflects the projections of independent analysts with regard to the future of new coal and natural gas electricity generation. For this reason, the Office of Management and Budget estimates that there will be no cost for industry compliance with the Proposal as compared with the status quo.

That said, it is important to recognize that widely fluctuating natural gas prices are a recent memory, and that, while the majority of independent analysts currently project an abundant and inexpensive supply of natural gas for decades to come, this forecast may prove wrong. Issuing a standard that in effect prohibits the construction of new high-emitting coal plants (i.e., those not using CCS) therefore poses risks – as would issuing a standard that allows the construction of such plants. If the construction of new high-emitting coal plants is effectively prohibited and natural gas prices rise higher than currently foreseen, electricity rates could face an upward pressure. On the other hand, allowing the construction of new high-emitting coal plants could lock in the emissions of those plants for decades to come, exacerbating the challenges the United States faces in reducing its GHG emissions and increasing the risks and costs of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

On balance, C2ES believes the best choice in implementing the NSPS requirement for new power plants is to issue one standard, regardless of fuel type, but with a mechanism that allows for technological innovation (as discussed above). This should be accompanied by heavy federal investment in low-emitting technologies, including CCS, with the goal of maintaining a diverse set of energy sources in generating the nation’s electricity.

Finally, while the establishment of one emission standard regardless of fuel type may be appropriate with respect to new facilities in the power sector, it may not be appropriate for existing facilities in the power sector or for other sectors for which the EPA may issue regulations.
 

Related Matters

The United States needs a comprehensive energy strategy that delivers a diverse set of affordable low-emitting sources of electricity.

C2ES believes that as a matter of national policy and economic common sense, it is imperative to enhance energy diversity through programs that advance low-emitting uses of coal and natural gas; nuclear power; renewable energy; and efficiency in generation, transmission and end-use.

In particular, the United States needs an effective strategy for demonstrating CCS and making it inexpensive enough to use on future coal and natural gas power plants. Coal- and natural gas-fired generation will likely be predominant sources of electricity in the United States and most of world’s other major economies for decades to come. It will therefore be essential to advance CCS to the point that its use is economical in the context of electricity generation.

A CCS strategy should include a major research, development and demonstration effort, and subsidies to actively encourage the use of CCS with new and existing natural gas and coal power plants so that the technology can travel down the learning curve. C2ES strongly supports, among other measures, the federal grant programs that have allowed the construction of the previously-mentioned CCS projects. Another option is to establish a trust fund to support demonstration projects at commercial scale for a full range of systems applicable to U.S. power plants. CO2-enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR), a practice in which oil producers inject CO2 into wells to draw more oil to the surface, presents an important opportunity to advance CCS while boosting domestic oil production and reducing CO2 emissions. A coalition,[4] co-convened by C2ES, has called for a federal tax credit for capture and pipeline projects to deliver CO2 from industrial and power plants to operating wells. (Note that the recommended tax credit is focused on plant and pipeline operators, rather than EOR operators.)

In addition to investing in CCS, it should be a national priority to invest in and otherwise advance a range of low-emitting energy technologies—for economic, as well as environmental, reasons. The diversity of energy sources used in electricity generation has been a valuable hedge against the unpredictable volatility of the various fuel sources, including natural gas. An electricity sector that increasingly relies on any single fuel would create unintended risks for our economy.

C2ES urges the EPA to move forward with the GHG NSPS for existing power plants, and to do so in a way that builds on existing state programs and allows states to use flexible market-based measures to implement the standards.

As mentioned, C2ES believes market-based policies would be the best way of reducing GHG emissions and spurring clean energy development and deployment. In the absence of a legislated solution, there appears to be an opportunity to utilize market-based policies in the regulation of GHG emissions from existing power plants.

Under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA, in concert with the states, is required to establish GHG emission standards for existing stationary sources—including existing power plants, which account for about one-third of U.S. GHG emissions today. The EPA has, in fact, entered into a settlement agreement under which it will implement section 111(d) for existing power plants. C2ES urges the EPA to move forward in implementing section 111(d) in a manner that can utilize market-based policies as soon as practicable.

Over the next few years, power plant owners will have to make billions of dollars’ worth of decisions about retrofitting, retiring, and replacing a large number of older, carbon-intensive coal plants in light of pending non-climate air, water, and waste regulations. Not knowing what GHG standards these existing facilities will have to meet presents facility owners with enormous uncertainty, greatly complicating and even delaying their decisions, ultimately at the expense of electricity rate payers. Because the Proposal addresses only new sources, this uncertainty pertains even to reconstruction or modification of existing sources. The Proposal mitigates some of the regulatory uncertainty faced by the power sector, but not all.

At the same time, several northeastern states already have an operational regional cap-and-trade program for CO2 from power plants (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), California is implementing an economy-wide GHG cap-and-trade program, and several states have renewable energy standards, alternative energy standards, or other programs that are effective in reducing the average GHG emission rate across all sources, as well as the overall level of GHG emissions.

C2ES strongly prefers that Congress establish a comprehensive, national market-based GHG reduction policy that would cover both new and existing sources and help to reduce this patchwork quilt of state and regional regulation. In the absence of such legislation, however, C2ES recommends that, in implementing section 111(d) for existing power plants, the EPA issue GHG emission rate-based performance standards in a manner that allows for averaging, banking and trading among sources, giving states the flexibility to adopt various market-based policies that will meet or outperform the standard.
 

References

1. 549 U.S. 497 (2007)

2. EPA Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2008-0318

3. Matthew J. Kotchen and Erin T. Mansur, “How Stringent is the EPA’s Proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants?” University of California Center for Energy and Environmental Economics, April 2012.

4. Please note that these comments do not necessarily reflect the opinion of other members of NEORI.