A Death Sentence? EPA Proposes to Mandate Carbon Capture Technology for all new Coal Plants

January 21, 2014

On January 8, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agaency (EPA) submitted to the Federal Register its proposed rule on New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), which would require all new coal-fired power plants to employ Carbon Capture technology to reduce their emissions. The move has met extreme opposition from industry groups.
EPA’s NSPS program applies specific technology standards to limit the harmful emissions from, among other things, all new power plants. The standards adopted in the proposed rule would, among other things, require all new coal-fired power plants to adopt partial CCS technologies in order to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses. CCS, short for Carbon Capture and Storage (also called Carbon Capture and Sequestration), is a relatively new set of technologies aimed at reducing much of the harmful emissions from coal-fired power plants (as well as gas-fired power plants and some large industrial activities). First, various means are used to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from power plants. Then, the captured CO2 is compressed and transported via pipelines. Finally, the CO2 is safely injected deep underground for long-term storage.

However, many industry groups contest that CCS has not been adequately demonstrated, and argue that the rule’s standards are unachievable.

This requirement by the EPA was based on the premise that CCS technology was the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER) that has been “adequately demonstrated.” However, many industry groups contest that CCS has not been adequately demonstrated, and argue that the rule’s standards are unachievable. As Laura Sheehan, senior vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) noted, “By requiring CCS, EPA is placing a de facto ban on the construction of new coal-fueled power plants . . . .” This and other criticisms generally focus on the lack of established knowledge about implementing CCS on a large scale.
This arguably premature move is one of a series of rules by EPA relating to (and encouraging the development of) CCS technology. In 2010, EPA published two rules setting a foundation for CCS regulation; one rule under the Safe Water Drinking Act established strict guidelines for new class of wells used to inject captured carbon dioxide deep underground; another rule under the Clean Air Act requires the monitoring and reporting of the carbon dioxide captured and stored in CCS. More recently, in December, 2013 the EPA finalized a rule that exempts power plants and well operators involved in the CCS process from all hazardous waste regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Clearly, EPA is aggressively pushing the implementation of this young technology; its most recent NSPS rule is certainly the most dramatic step. The impact of this strategy on America’s energy profile has yet to be seen, but it is fairly clear that CCS isn’t going anywhere soon.