Letter to EPA Objecting to Loopholes in Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants

[In May 2013, over 500 grassroots activists sent in this sign-on letter to EPA about their inadequate Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants.]

Dear EPA Administrator McCarthy:

Your proposed CO2 rule for new electric generating units falls short in several ways and must be strengthened so that it does not worsen global warming and pollute impacted communities with other harmful emissions.

The rule must:

  1. address environmental justice
  2. apply to natural gas power plants
  3. apply to biomass and waste incineration, whose CO2 emissions are worse than coal
  4. reject carbon sequestration and enhanced oil recovery

Without correcting the flaws outlined below, this is a "do nothing" rule that will not apply to any actual facilities.[1]  It only applies to new conventional coal power plant proposals.  Of the couple-hundred proposals in the past decade, about 85% were already defeated by environmental opposition and the rest were already built, so the rule will not apply to them.  The rule exempts the three proposals that the rule could have applied to (which are unlikely to be built, anyway).

Failure to address environmental justice

This rule dismisses impact on low-income communities and communities of color in a single paragraph, arguing that the rule protects all communities.  This is not true.

The rule -- because it is not adequately strict -- fails to protect communities from hundreds of proposals for gas-fired power plants, biomass and waste incinerators which fall through the cracks in this rule.  The rule also promotes coal gasification power plants.  These proposed facilities tend to be located in communities of color and low-income communities.  If the rule will green light these technologies, it must analyze the cumulative impact on environmental justice communities.

Apply the rule to natural gas power plants

The rule gives a green light to power plants burning natural gas.  By setting the emission limits at 1,000 to 1,200 lbs of CO2/MWh, just above what gas-fired power plants emit, it ensures that CO2 from gas-fired power plants will go unregulated.

There are hundreds of proposals around the nation for new gas-fired power plants, gas-fired expansions of existing power plants, conversions of existing power plants to natural gas, and refiring of shuttered gas-fired power plants.  This is where the electric power industry is going already -- not toward new coal power plants -- and the rule deliberately avoids regulating them.  This may fit with your administration's support for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but it is unacceptable.

Fracked gas GHG emissions far worse than coal: This rule is especially unacceptable in light of the fact that numerous studies have found that extensive leakage of methane from gas infrastructure makes fracked natural gas worse than coal for the climate.[2]  Natural gas power plant emissions are not limited to what is measured from the smokestack.  By exempting gas-fired power plants, this rule supports fracking, pipelines and compressor stations, and all of the leakage throughout these systems.  For too long, EPA has used outdated science that downplays the gravity of methane's global warming potential.[3]  The latest research shows that methane leakage from gas drilling is actually 100 to 1,000 times greater than EPA estimates.[4]

Apply the rule to biomass and waste incineration, whose CO2 emissions are also worse than coal

Trash incinerators release 2.5 times as much CO2 as coal power plants do per unit of energy, according to EPA's eGRID data.[5]  Biomass incineration releases 50% more CO2 than coal.[5]  Despite this physical reality, EPA still exempts these incinerators from the rule.

EPA needs to stop pretending that "biogenic" CO2 in the atmosphere does not count.  EPA's own Science Advisory Board has found this "carbon neutral" assumption to be deeply flawed.[6]  Numerous studies have debunked biomass carbon neutrality claims and have shown that, even if new and additional tree growth is made to happen, it takes decades to bring levels down to that of coal, and centuries for "carbon neutrality" to be reached, if ever.[7]  We don't have that long to address global warming, and biomass cannot be a solution to its own excessive carbon emissions within a meaningful time frame.  We cannot address global warming by burning the very carbon-storing forests we need to be preserving.

In July 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down EPA's exemption for biogenic CO2 sources.[8]  The court agreed with the science that the atmosphere does not distinguish between a ton of CO2 from biomass and a ton of CO2 from fossil fuels.

Rather than defy this federal court ruling, EPA must start applying CO2 regulations to these highly-polluting sources.  Most of the CO2 emitted from trash incineration is fossil-derived (such as plastics), and is not "biogenic," yet the rule fails to even cover these emissions, which are enough to make CO2 emissions from trash incinerators 50% worse than coal (and 2.5 times as bad when the "biogenic" fraction is counted).[5]

Of course, CO2 is not the only pollutant emitted from incinerators.  By giving a green light to trash incinerators, EPA is supporting emission sources that releases 28 times as much dioxin than coal per unit of energy produced, twice as much carbon monoxide, three times as much nitrogen oxides (NOx), 6-14 times as much mercury, nearly six times as much lead and 70% more sulfur dioxides.[9]  Biomass incineration, depending on the type, is also on par with coal emissions for many pollutants, including particulate matter, NOx and carbon monoxide.

EPA's Office of Solid Waste is pushing forward with a radical redefinition of waste, which would allow unregulated waste burning in hundreds of thousands of boilers around the country, by redefining many wastes as fuels.[10]  This misguided pro-incineration approach must stop, and accurately accounting for CO2 emissions from waste burning is one good place to start.

Reject carbon sequestration and enhanced oil recovery

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is unproven, risky, energy inefficient, and economically unviable without government subsidies.  It risks contamination of ground water sources, and leakage over time.  It's even more misguided where this alleged CO2 "sequestration" is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) -- allowing oil to be extracted that would otherwise have stayed in the ground.

When CO2 is pumped into the ground to produce extra oil, the CO2 released from the ultimate burning of that oil can easily exceed the amount "sequestered" by this process.[11]

EPA needs to just admit that combustion-based electric generation is no longer necessary and is unavoidably damaging to the climate.  There is no way to use combustion-based systems and truly "control" for CO2 emissions.  The only "control" is to end burning in all forms.

A 2012 University of Delaware study has shown that, by 2030, wind, solar and energy storage can meet all of the electricity needs of a utility-scale grid with 99.9% reliability at costs comparable to what we pay today and without government subsidies.[12]  Numerous other studies have shown similar potential to meet our electricity needs without combustion sources.[13]


[Signed by over 500 people]


[1] U.S. EPA, "Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Proposed Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units," Sept 2013.  http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2013-09/documents/20130920proposalria.pdf Page 1-1 states: "Today's proposal applies to new sources, which are sources that 'commence construction' after publication of the proposal.   Based on current information, the Wolverine project in Rogers City, Michigan appears to be the only fossil fuel-fired boiler or integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) EGU project presently under development without carbon capture and storage (CCS) with an air permit that has not already commenced construction."  However, the Wolverine project has since been canceled, leaving no current or expected coal power plant proposals likely to be covered by this rule.
[2] Some of these studies are cited here: http://www.energyjustice.net/naturalgas/
[3] EPA has used outdated science from the 1990s to assume a global warming potential (GWP) for methane of 21 times that of CO2, updated this year (using 2007 science) to a GWP of 25.  The latest science from IPCC shows that methane's GWP is 34 times that of CO2.  This is over a 100-year time frame.  It's more appropriate to measure it over a 20-year time frame, since methane is short-lived (12 years) in the atmosphere and since we need to address global warming pollution in this shorter time frame.  Over 20 years, the latest IPCC data shows that it's 86 times as potent as CO2, and 2009 NASA science shows it could be as high as 105 times.  See this information compiled at http://www.energyjustice.net/naturalgas/
[4] Caulton, et. al, "Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 14, 2014.  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/10/1316546111.abstract
[5] EPA eGRID v.9 Database (2010 data for U.S. electric generators).  Analysis by Energy Justice Network.  Charts and data tables documented at http://www.energyjustice.net/egrid
[6] EPA Science Advisory Board, "SAB Review of EPA's Accounting Framework for Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources," Sept 28, 2012. http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/0/57B7A4F1987D7F7385257A87007977F6/$File/EPA-SAB-12-011-unsigned.pdf Related documents at: http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/0/2F9B572C712AC52E8525783100704886
[7] Studies debunking biomass carbon neutrality are compiled here: http://www.energyjustice.net/content/biomass-library-scientific-reports#climate
[8] Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA, 722 F.3d 401 (D.C. Cir. 2013). http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/F523FF1F29C06ECA85257BA6005397B5/$file/11-1101-1446222.pdf
[9] "Trash Incineration More Polluting than Coal," Energy Justice Network. http://www.energyjustice.net/incineration/worsethancoal
[10] Non-hazardous secondary materials (NHSM) Rule described in "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire," Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Nov. 2013.  http://www.no-burn.org/downloads/Out%20of%20the%20frying%20pan%20Nov%2018.pdf
[11] "Enhanced Oil Recovery is NOT Carbon Sequestration," Energy Justice Network.  http://www.energyjustice.net/coal/eor
[12] Budischak, et. al., "Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time," Journal of Power Sources 225 (2013) 60-74.  http://www.energyjustice.net/files/solutions/2012udel.pdf
[13] Reports on clean energy solutions available at http://www.energyjustice.net/solutions/