Proposed Rule to Weaken Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants

Public Comment Period Closed March 18, 2019 

Read the proposal @

See docket information @

Public hearing was held February 14, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

What’s at Risk, How to Comment, and Talking Points 

The Current Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants

The Clean Air Act requires that new stationary pollution sources such as power plants and factories meet an emissions standard based on a determination of the “best system of emissions reduction” (or BSER).  In 2015 EPA issued strong CO2 emissions standards for new, modified and reconstructed fossil-fuel-fired electric power plants (steam generating units).

Standards for newly constructed coal-fired generating units were based on the performance of a new, highly efficient, supercritical pulverized coal unit implementing post-combustion partial CCS technology (1,400 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of gross output, requiring 16%-23% capture depending on coal type).  The EPA concluded that CCS was adequately demonstrated (including being technically feasible) based on experience with the technology in the industrial and power sectors, was widely available, and could be implemented at reasonable cost.  A limited number of power plants are capturing and sequestering some of their carbon emissions.

The EPA did not choose natural gas co-firing or IGCC technology (either with natural gas co-firing or implementing partial CCS) as the basis of the standards.  However, the Agency did identify those technologies as alternative methods of compliance.

Coal-fired power plants are much more expensive to build and to run than other types of plants and industry observers do not expect new coal-fired plants to be built in the United States.  It is also unlikely that owners will invest significantly in upgrading their existing plants.  Natural gas and renewables are increasingly a cheaper way to generate electricity.

The Trump Administration Rollback Notice

The Trump Administration proposal would reverse EPA’s 2015 finding that partial CCS is the best system of emission reduction adequately demonstrated.  The notice relies heavily on cost in proposing the change.  The proposal would relax the standard for new and modified coal plants to a level that can easily be met without CCS.

Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA Administrator (now confirmed), said that “coal is the cheapest form of electricity,” and EPA’s press release claimed that that reducing the standards could “level the playing field so that new technology can be a part of America’s future.”  Neither statement is accurate.  EPA’s own economic analysis indicates that new coal plants, even without CCS, are unlikely to be built because they are not cost-competitive with alternatives such as natural gas and renewable generation.  The proposal would set emission standards at levels achievable with standard coal generation technology rather than encourage innovation for cleaner coal burning.  Neither this proposal, nor the Administration’s other regulatory rollbacks favoring coal, will restore the coal industry.

Suggested Talking Points

The proposed rollback won’t revive the coal industry

This rollback would have little or no effect on the use of coal for generating electricity in the United States, or on U.S. emissions of CO2, because there are cleaner and cheaper ways of generating electricity, according to EPA’s economic analysis.  If any coal plants are built, however, the proposal would allow higher emissions of climate-changing carbon dioxide.

By rejecting CCS, the proposal encourages higher climate-changing emissions abroad

The proposal sends other countries a damaging message – that CCS is too expensive to require.  That could discourage use of CCS abroad in other countries that plan to build significant numbers of new coal-fired power plants because in their parts of the world alternatives to coal, especially natural gas, are more expensive.  Each uncontrolled new power plant may emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, EPA has stated.  The result could be to increase global climate-changing emissions significantly, harming people in the U.S. and worldwide.

The proposal is inconsistent with the urgent need to reduce climate-changing emissions

In fall 2018 the National Climate Assessment[i], a U.S. government report from scientists at 13 federal agencies, provided an authoritative assessment of climate science.  It describes the changes that have already taken place and projects future impacts if dramatic steps are not taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.  It documents wide-ranging impacts in every region of the country and throughout the economy.  The report makes clear that limiting the effects of climate change will require assertive and tough action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by the U.S. and all the nations of the world.  The report makes clear that it is imperative that action be taken without delay.

The U.S. report came on the heels of an international report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warns of substantial increases in damaging impacts at 2 degrees C. of warming relative to 1.5 degrees C.  The U.N. report calls for “aggressive and sustained action” to cut emissions over the next decade.[ii]

In addition, the report --  Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius -- relies on CCS as an essential component in three of four pathways for keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Most of the world can't meet emissions targets without CCS, according to the IPCC’s 2014 synthesis report for its fifth climate change assessment.  For countries that can do so, mitigation costs are much higher without CCS, the report says.[iii]  (IPCC AR5 2014)

However, the Trump Administration is not accelerating emission reductions or maintaining standards that promote CCS consistent with warnings from scientific authorities.  Rather, the Trump Administration has proposed to roll back existing regulations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  The proposal to water down standards for carbon pollution from new power plants is one example.

The proposed standards are weak

The standards for CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants that this rule proposes are not only much weaker than the existing standards finalized in 2015:  They are weaker than the emissions levels already being achieved by plants currently operating.  The last coal-fired power plant that was constructed in the U.S. – more than six years ago -- has better emissions performance than the proposed rule would require.[iv]

Even though there are a number of coal-fired plants in the U.S. and elsewhere that are currently capturing some of their CO2 emissions, this rollback rule does not require that any new plants do so.

It is ironic that the proposal came was announced the very week that the US hosted a fossil-fuel side event as the world gathered in Poland to find a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  At its side event the U.S. bragged about “clean” fossil fuel technologies.  But this proposal makes it clear that, rather than supporting new cleaner technology, the Trump Administration is really promoting old dirty technology.

Partial CCS is adequately demonstrated and achievable considering cost

In 2015 EPA determined the cost of partial CCS was reasonable based on findings that the levelized costs were comparable to the construction of new nuclear capacity, and that the cost increases under the rule were comparable to other cost increases previously experience by the power sector as a result of Clean Air Act regulation.

The proposal raises questions about whether the 2015 finding that CCS is an adequately demonstrated technology, citing operational challenges occurring at two CCS projects, the SaskPower Boundary Dam project in Canada and the NRG Petra Nova project in Houston, Texas.  According to a blog posted by the Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, “What EPA fails to acknowledge is that even with those challenges, both projects are currently operational and capturing a significantly large proportion of CO2 from their respective power plants than what would be required under the rule.  The Petra Nova CCS facility captures approximately 90% of the CO2 emitted from the flue gas slipstream at which it is installed (approximately 33% of the total power plant emissions) and the Boundary Dam CCS facility is also capable of capturing approximately 90% or CO2 when operating at peak performance.”[v]  In earlier litigation over the 2015 rule, the Sabin Center submitted an amicus brief on behalf of leading CCS experts supporting the 2015 EPA findings.

EPA has increased its estimate of the costs of CCS, yet a new study released in November 2018 by the International CCS Knowledge Centre (Knowledge Centre) finds significant cost reductions for future carbon capture and storage (CCS) due to the experience gained from existing CCS projects.[vi]  EPA also fails to explain why increased costs for new coal plants are unreasonable in light of the proposal’s own argument that nuclear projects are more attractive than coal-fired EGUs for providing fuel diversity.[vii]

The Trump administration, even while acknowledging that no new coal plants are projected to be built in the U.S. either under the existing rule or this rollback, attempts to justify this rollback by talking at length about the costs of reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, without providing any clear case why those costs would be unreasonable.  The agency’s economic analysis concludes that there would be little or no emission changes or costs associated with the proposal, and no benefits.  “The EPA does not anticipate the construction of new coal-fired steam generating units and expects few, if any, coal-fired EGUs to trigger the proposed NSPS modification or reconstruction standard for these sources,” the notice explains.  Logic would then say that there is no cost to the existing rule either.

There Is More That We Can Do

It would be great if well-reasoned, fact-based comments were enough to win the day, but in today's deregulatory environment, raising the political stakes of regulatory rollbacks is crucial to stopping or slowing them down.  Submitting comments is a good first step. For rules that are particularly important to you, please consider taking one or more of the following steps, too. These methods can help to mobilize public opinion and spur elected leaders to fight the destructive changes that the Trump Administration is promoting.

Write to your members of Congress and other elected officials.  Let them know your concerns and ask them to weigh in on this rollback and speak out publicly in favor EPA’s existing statements on this issue.  These links make it easy to write your members of Congress (your representative in the House of Representatives and your two senators).  If you're willing to register with Countable, this link -- -- allows you to identify your members of Congress and send a message to all three at once.  Or, you can write them separately -- you can use or to find your members' email contact forms or snail mail addresses.

Let your state officials know that you are concerned about this issue.  Write to your elected leaders, get involved with local activists who are encouraging local or state action.

Voice your concern and encouragement in the media, social media, at local meetings, and at every opportunity.  In the absence of federal leadership, it is vitally important that states and local governments fill the void.

Write letters to the editor and even op-eds in your local papers.  Letters to the editor should be fairly brief.

Organize or participate in campaigns to make phone calls or write letters to members of Congress and make phone calls to radio stations during call-in days, or take other actions to spread the word.

Inform your local officials about these issues and ask them to make a public statement or submit comments on a proposed rollback if your jurisdiction has a stake in these issues.  Bring up these issues at town hall meetings.

Spread the word via social media.  Tag your elected officials so they know how you feel.

Join or organize demonstrations.

Talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors and encourage them to comment and otherwise join in this effort.


For More Information

EPA’s 2015 rule --

Columbia University Sabin Center Climate Law Blog -- “Four Important Points About EPA’s Revised New Source Performance Standards for Electric Generating Units,” posted December 7, 2018.



[i] U.S. Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, 2018.

[ii][ii] International Panel on Climate Change Press Release, “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C Approved by Governments,” October 2018.

[iii] IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

[iv] The John Turk Power Plant came on line in 2012.

[v] Jessica Wentz and Romany Webb, Climate Law Blog, “Four Important Points About EPA’s Revised New Source Performance Standards for Electric Generating Units,” posted December 7, 2018.

[vi] See and

[vii] See footnote v.


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With newly-elected President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris coming in January, the need to "save EPA" is much less urgent. This is not to imply all clear skies ahead - there is much re-building to do, there will be negative pressures on the new administration, and we will likely have policy differences in the future. However, we are hopeful that these differences will be discussed rationally, using science as a basis for moving forward, and keeping EPA's mission of protecting human health and the environment in the forefront.

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