Thursday, September 19, 2013

The End of Coal May Not Be the Time of Methane

On Wednesday, Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Ms. McCarthy spoke about the EPA’s plans for the United States within the framework of the directions given to federal agencies last June saying: “The President’s Climate Action Plan directs federal agencies to address climate change using existing executive authorities. The Plan has three key pillars: cutting carbon pollution in America; preparing the country for the impacts of climate change; and leading international efforts to combat global climate change.”

The first steps of the President’s and EPA’s Climate program addressed motor vehicles, which emit nearly a third of U.S. carbon pollution. The EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued new millage and emission standards for automobiles and light trucks for model year 2012 through 2016 that require vehicles to meet an estimated combined average emissions level of 250 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile in model year 2016, equivalent to 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) if the automotive industry were to meet this CO2 level entirely through fuel economy improvements. A second set of standards requires continued improvement in gas mileage of about a 5% per year in average fuel economy from 2016 – 2025 that will result in car and light truck fuel economy to an average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025.

After addressing automobiles, the President asked EPA to develop plans to reduce carbon pollution from future and existing power plants, which are responsible for about 40 % of America’s carbon dioxide emissions. This month EPA is expected to release the revised Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants that had previously been announced 2012 and limits the amount of CO2 that can be produced for each megawatt of electricity produced. Under the revised rule, it is expected that new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,100 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. . That standard will effectively change the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies). All existing plants and currently permitted and built in the next 12 months will be grandfathered and exempt from this new rule for a period of time. Reductions in CO2 generation from power plants will not improve human health, but the official “social costs” of carbon dioxide used by the EPA to $65 per ton.

EPA has also issued other regulations targeted at coal fired power plants, EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, CSAPR, Mercury and Air Toxic's Standard, MATS and the lowering of the primary annual 2.5 micron particulate standard (PM 2.5) to 12. CSAPR which requires reductions of sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions in coal fired plants was made final in July but at the end of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit granted a stay to the implementation of the CSAPR pending resolution of the legal challenges. MATS regulates mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide and was finalized on December 21. 2011. All of these regulations are anticipated to have direct human health benefits in addition to reducing the ability of coal fired power plants to operate. There will be a reduction in the number of coal fired power plants and no new coal plants will be built. The 92% of the market for coal is domestic power plants. That market will shrink and wither and the age of coal will end.

The President’s Plan also calls for the development of a comprehensive, interagency strategy to address emissions of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas that also contributes to ozone pollution. So it remains unclear if regulations aimed at methane will reduce the feasibility of using our abundant natural gas resources as the primary fuel in power generation and for heating of commercial and residential buildings.

Even as EPA works to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, they are incorporating research on climate impacts into the implementation of their regulatory programs. According to Ms. McCarthy, EPA is working to build our national resilience to Climate Change, including developing the National Drought Resilience Partnership, ensuring the security of our freshwater supplies, protecting our water utilities, and protecting and restoring our forests in the fact of a changing climate. In addition, EPA will continue to engage in discussions with other nations to develop strategies for reducing carbon pollution through an array of activities.” These include public-private partnership efforts to address emissions of methane and other short-lived climate pollutants under the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the Global Methane Initiative, as well as bilateral cooperation with major economies.”

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