SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Smokestacks at American Electric Power's Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, W.V., photographed in October 2009.
In a move that advances one of the key goals President Obama outlined in his Climate Action Plan last June, the Environmental Protection Agency published a new rule this week with the first-ever federal limits on carbon emissions from newly constructed power plants.
The EPA took four months to publish the rule in the Federal Register after EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced it in a speech last September. The rule sets sets separate standards for coal-fired and natural-gas-fired electricity generating plants.
Once in place, the rule will limit all future coal plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions for each megawatt hour of electricity they generate. Today's coal-fired power plants pump an average of about 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per megawatt hour.
Natural gas plants will be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour for larger units (plants that generate 100 megawatts of energy) and 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour for smaller plants.
Most coal plants won't meet the new standard without implementing cutting-edge technologies that capture and store their carbon emissions, which has stoked industry fears that these new regulations will effectively mean no new coal plants will ever be built in the United States.
U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), who represents one of the nation's biggest coal-producing states, sharply criticized the EPA's action yesterday on Twitter:
It’s unbelievable that on 50th anniversary of war on poverty, the #EPA rolls out another rule that will increase poverty in coal country.— Sen. John Barrasso (@SenJohnBarrasso) January 8, 2014
The electricity industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and coal accounts for about 80 percent of its CO2 emissions each year.
But the coal industry also is one of the most important to the economies of states like Montana and Wyoming, which are expected to expand production this year after two years of declines.
In her speech last September (which you can watch in the video below), McCarthy answered critics by pointing to the car industry. "Those standards did not cripple the auto industry," she said. "They made it stronger and more competitive."
Currently no power plants in the U.S. use the technologies McCarthy refers to in the speech, known as carbon capture and storage (or carbon dioxide capture and sequestration), though a massive project to build a plant equipped with them is underway in Kemper County, Miss.
Projects to build plants with the technology also are in progress in Canada's Saskatchewan province, where an older coal plant is being retrofitted. The Texas Clean Energy Project is planned near Odessa, Texas, while Hydrogen Energy California will both use hydrogen to generate electricity and store carbon to enable oil recovery in Kern County, Calif.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies project has compiled a database of all the CCS projects currently planned or already being built around the world, which you can see by clicking the icons in this Google map:
Just because the rule has been published in the Federal Register doesn't mean that it's yet in effect, however. The public has 60 days to comment on the rule – at the EPA website set up to receive input on the new carbon pollution standards, or at the public hearing scheduled for Jan. 28 in Washington, D.C.Follow @terrellwrites
MORE: The Price of Coal
What Price Coal?
Climate activists with protest banners wave polish flags on the rooftop of the Economy Ministry in Warsaw, Poland, on Nov. 18, 2013. They went up the rooftop to protest a coal conference opening to coincide with U.N. talks on preventing global warming, that is also the result of greenhouse gases coming from burning coal. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)