New Source Standards for Power Plants: The Status Quo and Sensible Government

by David Driesen

September 20, 2013

Almost every new power plant that the electric utility industry has built in recent years has been a natural gas powered plant. Industry rarely builds new coal-fired power plants anymore because gas has become much cheaper than coal. That is a very good thing. Absent rather expensive carbon capture and storage, new coal-fired power plants emit far more greenhouse gases than natural gas powered plants.

The new source standards promulgated today will tend to lock in the current status quo. They will likely impose no net cost on the economy, because natural gas has become cheaper than coal. Instead of generating electricity with the dirtiest fuel source, we will continue to rely more heavily on a somewhat cleaner fuel source. Given the effects of climate disruption one could argue that these standards do not go far enough. Climate disruption has likely caused heat waves, sea level rise, intensified hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts already. And scientists predict intensification of these effects if greenhouse gas emissions continue without surcease. It is not clear that EPA is being as demanding as it could be, since these standards do allow utilities to build new coal-fired power plants even when using gas would produce less greenhouse gases. Nor do they aggressively maximize the emission reductions available from natural gas. Yet, these new standards will lock in technological advances substantially reducing emissions, at least when utilities build new plants.

Any technological advance does create some losers along with the winners. But when computers made typewriters obsolete, nobody suggested that we stop companies from building personal computers because a robust computer industry would hurt the typewriting industry. Similarly, when Apple started making I-Phones, nobody sought to stop this on grounds that it would hurt sales of MP3 music players and landline phones. And in the last few years, when electric power producers started substituting natural gas for coal, nobody suggested that the impacts on coal producers should stop us from allowing electric utilities from making this change. The technological improvements that have made America a leading economic power always come with some downside. Yet, our tendency to move forward has made us a great country.

Strangely, those in Congress who moan about environmental regulations “killing jobs” remained utterly silent when the electric utility industry started actually reducing coal mining jobs by switching to natural gas, not just for new plants, but for existing ones as well. Now that the EPA has, quite appropriately, stepped up to say that environment imperatives require this trend to continue at least for new plants (unless we can realize the promise of clean coal), we can expect these supposed champions of the working man to suddenly start denouncing EPA for destroying jobs. They will not mention the jobs created by drilling for natural gas and bringing it to market nor in developing and applying carbon capture and storage to new coal-fired power plants. They will not mention the serious harm global climate disruption will visit upon us if we do not start down the path of phasing out fossil fuels.  And they will not mention that the trend toward gas displacing coal is already far advanced without any push from EPA.  They will focus only on the losses and attribute those solely to EPA in a bid to try and revive an old, dirty, and dying technological approach that is already, thankfully, on its way out.

EPA deserves praise for taking this step forward in the face of opposition to sensible government so virulent that it objects to standards that do little more than lock in a recently altered status quo. In a world where climate disruption threatens our very existence, we will need government to function well in order to stand a chance of avoiding horrific losses. This rule constitutes a good step in that direction.

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Also from David Driesen

David M. Driesen is a University Professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is a member of the editorial board of the Carbon and Climate Law Review, published in Berlin and Environmental Law, published in Oxford.

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