‘Betrayal’: EPA power plant proposal faces backlash

By Jean Chemnick | 06/14/2023 07:02 AM EDT

Environmental justice advocates are upset with the Biden administration for proposing a plan that would let gas- and coal-fired power plants stay open with new technologies.

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Kansas City, Mo.

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted Feb. 1 against the setting sun in Kansas City, Mo. Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

EPA’s new proposal to cut carbon pollution from power plants relies on two technologies that are broadly opposed by environmental justice advocates.

Champions for poor, Black and brown communities that have lived for decades with polluting infrastructure are angry that the Biden administration would propose retrofitting fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) or hydrogen capacities instead of just shutting them down. They say the EPA proposal runs counter to the Biden administration’s emphasis on environmental equity.

“I think it’s really a betrayal of a lot of the promises that the Biden administration has made to keep our communities whole and to repair some of the harms from the past,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, climate justice director at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.


“We know that CCS and hydrogen will extend the life of some coal and gas plants, and that’s actually going to harm many communities,” he added. “So yeah, it was really disappointing to hear that those two technologies are being suggested as possible paths for power plants to decarbonize.”

EPA’s proposal for new and existing natural gas- and coal-fired power plants don’t mandate CCS or hydrogen co-firing as the way coal and gas plants would reduce emissions. Rather, the rule stipulates that plants that remain on the grid long term meet emissions limits that are consistent with those technologies. The standard applies to all coal plants and to the biggest natural gas plants.

In broad strokes, EPA’s draft regulations give power plant owners a choice: They can retrofit their fossil fuels fleet, or they can retire it. The proposal — which EPA is taking comment on through July 24 — allows more than a decade for units to retrofit or exit the grid. EPA’s supporting documents show it’s betting the overwhelming majority will choose the latter option. But the proposal is expected to spur a marginal increase in deployment of coal with CCS and gas plants burning hydrogen.

Sikowis Nobiss, executive director of the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous environmental justice group active in Iowa and Nebraska that opposes both coal-fired power and carbon dioxide pipeline construction, said the rule could make things harder for front-line communities.

“This could just prolong these plants that we’re trying to get shut down,” she said. “I guess it’s just like a ‘wait and see what’s going to happen.’ And that honestly feels a little defeating.”

EPA wrote its draft rule in the shadow of a Supreme Court decision last year that said the agency lacks authority under the Clean Air Act to limit the role coal and gas can play in supplying the U.S. power grid or to force those industries into extinction.

EPA said in an email to E&ENews that it gave “close consideration to community concerns” as it constructed the draft rule, including from environmental justice advocates.

“The Agency believes that deployment of CCS, or hydrogen, should take place in a manner that is protective of public health, safety, and the environment,” it said.

Environmental groups that support EPA’s draft rule argue that renewable energy likely will win out over pricy retrofits in most cases just based on cost. And they see a role for carbon capture in meeting broader climate goals — especially when it comes to decarbonizing heavy industry.

Technical experts disagree with environmental justice advocates on many of the details of how CCS equipment would work and what its risks would be. But they acknowledge that retrofitting plants could extend their lives — which is the opposite of what front-line communities want.

“We can talk all day about the climate benefits of doing these things,” said Simone Stewart, an industrial policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. “But at the same time, you have to acknowledge that people have a historic relationship oftentimes with this infrastructure, and to just say, ‘We’re going to retrofit it’ without acknowledging the other issues that the infrastructure has caused, I think, is what creates a lot of the tension.”

The effects of CCS on other pollutants

One concern that front-line advocates have with carbon capture is that it leaves toxic and smog-forming smokestack pollutants to spill into local neighborhoods unabated.

A coal-fired power plant releases a host of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particle pollution and mercury. All carry health risks that are felt locally and, because of America’s history of racist zoning practices, mostly by Black, brown and poor people.

Gas plants emit high quantities of NOx, which causes respiratory illness and contributes to ozone and particle pollution. EPA says that it tailored its draft carbon rule for existing gas plants to cover the sector’s biggest polluters, but many high-polluting gas plants would not be covered as the rule is written now.

Those “peaker” and “intermediate” plants, which run less frequently, can emit more NOx per unit of energy than the “baseload” plants the rule now covers. And they’re located in urban centers where they disproportionately impact minority populations. 

EPA regulations for local pollution from gas plants is years overdue for review, despite a growth in the number of new plants brought online in recent years. The agency announced Tuesday in the Federal Register that it would consider issuing a new proposal to tighten NOx standards by November 2024 — though the timeline means it wouldn’t become final before President Joe Biden’s first, and perhaps only, term ends.

Vickie Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund — which joined the Sierra Club last year in suing EPA to review its NOx rule — said in a recent interview that the agency risked endangering front-line communities if it issued a climate rule that depended on CCS without updating other protections.

“What some in industry see as an impediment to CCS are essential safeguards for the health of communities,” she said in an interview prior to EPA’s proposal.

CCS systems also require significant power to run — an “energy penalty” that may mean more fossil fuel generation.

But there is research that shows CCS does limit locally harmful pollution from power plants, as well as climate pollution. CCS can only run wellif operators first strip out most SO2 and PM2.5 emissions — tiny particles linked to respiratory and heart disease. Dirty flue gas degrades the machinery, making it ineffective.

“Those same pollutants that are harmful to human health are also really damaging to the amine solvent that is used to capture CO2,” said John Thompson, technology and markets director at the Clean Air Task Force. “So if you want to invest half-a-billion or a billion dollars in equipment, you have to take a lot of that stuff out in order to keep it running.”

Project developers hoping to take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act’s newly expanded tax credit for carbon capture would need to keep their equipment in good working order, he noted. The $85-per-ton credit is based on the volume of carbon captured and stored — not on investments in equipment.

Existing coal and gas plants that retrofit with CCS to comply with EPA’s power rule may also be required to meet a host of updated Clean Air Act rules for emissions such as SOx and NOx if they retrofit with CCS and then run much more frequently.

But the Clean Air Act provision known as New Source Review only would kick in if a source increases its emissions — something Clean Air Task Force Litigation Director Jay Duffy said was unlikely given the need to clean up flue gas to avoid damaging CCS equipment.

In spite of these assurances, environmental justice advocates remain wary. Communities have been told by experts before that the industrial site next door won’t do any harm — only to learn, to their cost, that that is untrue.

“You have this historic issue,” said Stewart. “And you have to find a way to address people’s concerns about this historic infrastructure, while also finding a path forward for that infrastructure.”

CCS pipelines

Power plants aren’t the only concern of environmental justice advocates.

Activists for front-line communities also are girding new carbon pipelines they say could undermine the safety and integrity of the mostly Black and brown communities they’re routed through. These pipelines carry carbon from the power plant to the storage site.

There are already 5,000 miles of pipeline carrying CO2 in the United States — mostly to help with oil production. But that number is likely to expand because of policies like EPA’s rule, the Inflation Reduction Act incentives, and the future imperative to cut carbon from sectors such as steel and cement production, for which CCS is effectively the only means of decarbonization.

Nobiss of the Great Plains Action Society said her group cut its teeth protesting the Dakota Access pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure and has now spent two years fighting CO2 pipelines.

“If these pipelines do burst, that’s the scary part,” she said. “There’s no way to help people.”

Nobiss said local first responders would lack the experience and the protocols to respond to a CO2 pipeline explosion if it occurred in one of the communities along its route. And she saw little evidence that authorities were considering those risks when weighing whether — and where — to permit pipelines.

Nobiss and other front-line activists point to a 2020 CO2 pipeline rupture in the rural community of Satartia, Miss., which prompted the evacuation of 200 people and hospitalized 45. The incident at Satartia illustrates that CO2 stays close to the ground and can sicken and even debilitate people in low-lying areas who are exposed to high concentrations of carbon.

Denbury Gulf Coast Pipelines LLC, which operated the pipeline, received one of the largest penalties ever levied by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. That agency is in the process of tightening regulations for CO2 pipelines, to include “requirements related to emergency preparedness and response.”

Satartia’s disaster was caused by a pipeline carrying natural CO2 to an oil field, not by a CCS pipeline. And there is some reason to believe that a CCS pipeline might not have caused the same level of damage if it was exclusively carrying CO2.

That’s because PHMSA’s post-incident report notes that witnesses at Satartia described a “rotten egg smell” after the explosion that the agency attributes to the presence of hydrogen sulfide — a hazardous and flammable gas the report states “is naturally occurring in the geologic formation that serves as a source of the CO2 in the pipeline.”

“I wouldn’t say Satartia was not a concern,” said Thompson. “I would just say that when you look at the 50 years that we’ve had CO2 pipelines — 5,000 miles of them, carrying over 500 million tons of CO2 over that period — there’s never been a fatality from an accident.

“We have a strong foundation of safety record in CO2 pipelines to build from,” he added. “We need to do more, especially as we expand the pipeline network to the kind of scale that is needed to address climate change.”

State primacy

Some of the work of making sure carbon management doesn’t hurt front-line communities could fall to states — and that worries some environmental justice advocates because of how state officials historically have treated poor, Black and brown communities.

Following passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, EPA has struggled with a backlog of applications for carbon storage sites that experts say it lacks the personnel to clear quickly. The bottleneck is likely to grow as EPA’s operating budget declines under the recent bipartisan budget deal.

The solution many in industry want is to give states primacy — allowing them to take over permitting injection sites, as long as their programs comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA just proposed granting that power to Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, and that gives environmental equity activists in the state serious pause.

“Abso — 100 percent — lutely,” said Monique Harden, director of law and policy at the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, when asked whether the prospect of Louisiana overseeing the permanent storage of carbon raised any red flags.

“You’re asking Louisiana, with a poor track record of protecting the environment and protecting the people, to do something that has never been done before — which is the permanent disposal of carbon dioxide below ground,” she said.

In its application to EPA, the Louisiana agency said it plans to partner with unnamed private companies to manage carbon storage in the state. Under Louisiana law, a company’s liability for an injection site can end after 10 years — not the 50 years provided for under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA did not respond to questions about how that apparent discrepancy could affect Louisiana’s primacy bid.

Advocates say Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality has frequently sided with the state’s petrochemicals industry on issues that have caused irreparable harm to minority communities.

Harden said the agency bore responsibility for greenlighting plans by the petrochemical company Texas Brine Co. LLC and landowner Occidental Petroleum Corp. to mine near Bayou Corne, La. — a project that resulted in a disastrous sinkhole and the permanent evacuation of hundreds of residents of the majority-Latino hamlet.

Harden says a “groundswell” of grassroots opposition to EPA’s plans for Louisiana primacy had forced the federal agency to swap a one-day public listening session in Baton Rouge for three days of in-person testimony. The hearings are scheduled for June 21-23.

Harden says her opposition to CCS goes beyond the question of what agency should oversee injection sites. She called the power plant rule an “endorsement of an unproven technology” that EPA made against the counsel of the Biden administration’s own environmental justice advisers.