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Getting on Track: Why We Need Greenhouse Gas Standards for Existing U.S. Power Plants

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a new proposal detailing how they would like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing power plants. Their analysis predicts that their proposal would reduce power sector GHG emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2020, or 17 percent below 2011 levels.

Standards for existing plants are essential if the United States is to make meaningful strides toward a low-carbon economy. NRDC’s proposal provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about how best to design these standards.

U.S. Emissions Are on an Unsustainable Path

Even though the United States has made progress on reducing emissions – most notably through the Obama administration’s new standards for passenger vehicles – we need more action if the country is to prevent climate change’s worst impacts. While U.S. energy emissions have fallen nearly 9 percent below 2005 levels, these trends are not expected to continue without ambitious new climate and energy policies. This is the clear takeaway from both the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012 and a recent analysis by Dallas Burtraw and Matthew Woerman at Resources for the Future.

Following is a statement by Andrew Steer, President, World Resources Institute:

“With his re-election, President Obama has the opportunity to fulfill the promise of his campaign and tackle the greatest challenges of our generation. At the top of the list should be climate change—which is already taking a serious toll on people, property, resources and the economy.

What to Look for in the EPA’s Forthcoming Standards on Emissions from Light-Duty Vehicles

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are working to finalize rules for light-duty vehicles that could significantly reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

These rules, which could be released this week, will establish new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks for model years 2017 through 2025. Light-duty vehicles represent a significant portion of U.S. greenhouse gases, accounting for approximately 17 percent of U.S. emissions. If the forthcoming rules resemble the proposed standards published by EPA and NHTSA last November, they will be an important step forward in protecting the environment and shielding consumers from higher gas prices.

Highlights from the Proposed Rules

The proposed rules would establish an emissions standard of 144 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile for passenger cars and 203 grams of CO2 per mile for trucks. If vehicles meet the standards entirely through fuel economy improvements, cars will achieve 61 miles per gallon (mpg), while trucks will achieve 43 mpg [^1]. If cars and trucks attain these standards, vehicles sold in 2025 will consume roughly half the fuel as vehicles sold in 2008 (27 mpg), emitting about half the greenhouse gases.

National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Can Help Countries Curb Climate Change

At WRI, we like to say that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” For managing and mitigating climate change, one of the most fundamental measurements is a periodic inventory of the problem’s root cause: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities.

GHG emissions inventories are carried out at several levels, including corporate, city, and state. Measuring emissions for entire nations has its unique challenges, but it’s a critical first step for any country that wants to effectively manage its contribution to global climate change. National GHG inventories provide a baseline of data and, if regularly updated, a tracking mechanism for assessing how domestic policies impact emissions.

How the EPA’s New Oil and Gas Standards Will Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued final rules to reduce air pollution at natural gas wells and other sources in the oil and gas industry. The rules—a New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and National Emissions Standards for hazardous air pollutants—establish the first federal standards for emissions from production wells (natural gas processing plants were already covered). They are designed to limit the release of VOCs and other air toxics that contribute significantly to smog and are associated with a wide range of adverse health effects. (For more on the oil and gas rules, see M.J. Bradley & Associates’ Issue Brief.)

In addition to reducing VOC and air toxics emissions, these rules will help reduce methane emissions from shale gas development. According to the EPA, there are over 11,000 new hydraulically fractured wells each year, and while water-related environmental concerns have received the lion’s share of public attention and are the focus of EPA’s ongoing hydraulic fracturing study, uncontrolled emissions from hydraulic fracturing can negatively impact air quality and the climate.

Electricity Markets Increasingly Favor Alternatives to Coal

This piece originally appeared in the National Journal Energy and Environment Experts Blog.

The U.S. electric power system is gradually shifting toward cleaner forms of generation. One sign of this transition is the declining use of coal for electric power production. In 2011, coal dropped to its lowest level of power generation in more than a decade, according to the U.S. government’s independent Energy Information Administration (EIA). In fact, the EIA recently reported that coal’s share of U.S. electric power generation fell below 40% for the last two months of 2011, the lowest level since 1978.

To understand the cause of this decline, it is important to examine the underlying market forces. Doing so provides important context for recent coal plant retirement announcements, particularly given that some companies have attributed retirements to EPA rules that are still years away from going into force. For example, FirstEnergy Corp. announced in late January 2012 that it would retire several of its smaller coal-fired power plants, explaining that the decision was “based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were recently finalized, and other environmental regulations.” FirstEnergy, however, had previously cited a range of reasons for its decision to reduce operations at many of its smaller coal plants.

EPA: Insurance for a Cleaner Future

This piece originally appeared in the National Journal Energy and Environment Experts Blog.

EPA’s newly proposed standards are an important step toward addressing the threat of unmitigated carbon pollution in altering the climate. EPA’s action will ensure that power suppliers consider greenhouse gas emissions before building any future power plants. Moreover, this lays the groundwork for future U.S. policies and action to address climate change.

The proposed standards set an emissions standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt-hour— slightly more carbon intensive than combined cycle natural gas plants built today. New coal units could comply with the regulations by committing to capture and store a portion of their carbon dioxide emissions or, where feasible, by using waste heat through combined heat and power systems.

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