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EPA proposes emissions caps on existing power plants in major climate effort

If finalized, the proposed rules would mark the first time the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
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The Biden administration on Thursday proposed new carbon pollution standards to restrict greenhouse gas emissions released by fossil fuel-fired power plants — an effort that, if it is enforced, would significantly further President Joe Biden's ambitious climate agenda.

Under the rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly all of the U.S.'s coal and large gas plants would have to reduce or capture almost all — 90% — of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2038 or be forced to retire.

The EPA estimated that its proposal would avoid up to 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2042, equivalent to reducing the annual emissions of about half the cars in the U.S. The rules would prevent 300,000 asthma attacks, as well as 1,300 annual premature deaths, in 2030, the EPA said.

“By proposing new standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants, EPA is delivering on its mission to reduce harmful pollution that threatens people’s health and wellbeing,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

“EPA’s proposal relies on proven, readily available technologies to limit carbon pollution and seizes the momentum already underway in the power sector to move toward a cleaner future," he said, adding that the policies would cut "climate pollution and other harmful pollutants, protecting people’s health, and driving American innovation."

If it is finalized, the proposed regulation would mark the first time the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, which generate about 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, second only to the transportation sector.

Coal provides about 20% of U.S. electricitydown from about 45% in 2010. Natural gas provides about 40% of U.S. electricity.

Industry groups have aggressively opposed the proposals. The National Mining Association slammed the rules as “unlawful showmanship," arguing that they would make it harder for companies to operate given the realities of existing technology.

"Each one of the rules coming from the Biden administration’s EPA is designed to make it impossible for states and utilities to make decisions based on the merits of what keeps the lights on and electricity inflation low, forcing them to make decisions solely based on the EPA’s desire to end coal powered generation in the United States," the association wrote in a statement.

Ben Jealous, the executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said the proposed rules showed the Biden administration “stepping up."

“When it comes to accelerating our country towards renewables, this isn’t just a great step forward, this is a great leap forward," Jealous said. He disputed critics’ arguments that the rules would drive up energy prices, saying renewable energy is already cheaper than coal. The industry, he said, "is hoping people won't do their research."

Other experts and climate activists, however, indicated that existing climate technology might limit the industry's ability to meet the thresholds set in the rules.

M. Granger Morgan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said it would be "a reach" for power plants to scale up carbon capture technology to meet the requirements by 2038. Still, he said, the proposed rules would push the industry toward reducing emissions.

“A lot of this stuff would have been a whole lot easier and less expensive if we hadn’t been stalling," Morgan said. “It’s a good thing we’re finally getting serious."

Caroline Spears, the executive director of Climate Cabinet Action, a political action committee, said that while she sees the proposed rules as "positive," she is also concerned that carbon capture and sequestration have previously failed when tested.

Ahead of the proposal's debut Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, condemned the EPA for what he called its determination to advance the administration's "radical climate agenda."

Manchin said in a statement that he will oppose all EPA nominees “until they halt their government overreach," adding that the administration has "made it clear they are hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence, no matter the cost to energy security and reliability."

The EPA will take feedback on the proposals for 60 days and hold a virtual public hearing to consider implementation.

Biden has vowed to take action on the most ambitious environmental justice agenda in U.S. history and has pushed to position the nation as a global leader in combating climate change.

In April, ahead of his re-election announcement, Biden signed an executive order to expand on his climate goals, which included establishing an office at the White House to coordinate his administration's efforts.