EPA unleashes power plant climate blitz

By Jean Chemnick, Sean Reilly, Miranda Willson | 04/25/2024 05:00 AM EDT

The package includes what would become the first U.S. carbon regulation to affect existing coal plants — if it survives political and legal attacks.

President Joe Biden introduces EPA Administrator Michael Regan at an Earth Day event.

President Joe Biden introduces EPA Administrator Michael Regan at an Earth Day event Monday. Andrew Harnik/AFP via Getty Images

EPA finalized a suite of rules Thursday that will crack down on pollution from fossil fuels electricity generation — and may hasten the transition to zero-emissions power.

The package includes final carbon dioxide standards for existing coal- and future gas-fired power plants and rules for air toxics, wastewater and legacy pollution from coal facilities. The climate rule stands to be the first time existing U.S. power plants will be regulated for greenhouse gases, following the failure of previous attempts that were scuttled by the courts.

It caps off the Biden administration’s first-term push to reduce heat-trapping pollution from major sectors of the economy. Power generation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, following only transportation. EPA has also finalized marquee climate rules for cars, trucks, and oil and gas production.


The final carbon rule includes some changes from last year’s draft. It doesn’t use green hydrogen as a benchmark technology for future gas-fired units — though utilities can still use hydrogen blending to comply with the rule. And it changes some key deadlines for when fossil fuels plants have to add carbon capture systems, or retire. It also requires more gas plants to install carbon capture technologies by lowering the trigger from a 50 percent run-time to 40 percent.

The agency’s new water treatment standards for coal plants set tighter limits on wastewater streams containing heavy metals and other pollutants. In addition, the agency finalized a rule requiring utilities to close, monitor and clean up old coal ash dump sites that are no longer in use. Both rules will reduce the flow of mercury, arsenic and other contaminants into water supplies that can cause serious health problems for humans and fish species, EPA said.

The strengthened air toxics regulations mark the first significant update since EPA issued its original power plant standards in 2012 and reverses a Trump-era finding that no changes were needed. Most notably, the new rules close a mercury emissions loophole for plants that burn lignite, a high-polluting form of coal, and also tighten limits on a type of particulate matter that serves as a stand-in for releases of nickel, arsenic and other metals besides mercury.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has said that rolling out the rules together will help utilities and regulators make informed decisions about the costs involved in retrofitting units to operate long term.

Environmentalists predict that most utilities will opt to retire coal-fired power plants rather than make the investments that are needed to keep them running throughout the 2030s.

EPA announced plans in February to move swiftly to regulate carbon from existing gas plants, together with rules for toxics and nitrogen oxides that cause smog. Greens hope the package — together with Thursday’s final standard for future gas-fired generation — will spur utilities to rethink the role gas turbines play in their fleets.

Utilities say the regulatory push could undermine the reliability of the grid by causing fossil fuel units to retire before new generation is built to replace it.