EPA Issues New Source Rules, Separates Requirements for Coal and Gas-Fired Plants

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-awaited revised proposal for Clean Air Act standards to curb carbon pollution from new power plants. The rule sets separate standards for new gas-fired and coal-fired plants. It would require future coal-fired plants to limit emissions of carbon dioxide to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour (MWh). The average U.S. coal-fired plant currently emits nearly 1,800 pounds per MWh. Large combined cycle natural gas plants producing at least 850 megawatts of electricity would be limited to 1,000 pounds per MWh, while smaller plants could emit up to 1,100 pounds per MWh. The new proposal replaces an earlier standard issued in 2012 that would have required all types of facilities to limit emissions to 1,000 pounds per MWh (subscription).

“We have proven time after time that setting fair Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. She went on to say that the proposal, “rather than killing future coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of a diverse mix in this country.”

New coal plants would likely need to implement carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, under the rule set to be finalized next year. That rule will trigger the drafting of standards for existing sources under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. Much of the opposition surrounding the rule, which is set for proposal in June 2014, is likely aimed at limits for these existing coal and natural-gas fired plants, which vary in age. There may be one significant difference between the new source and existing source rules, the Washington Post reports. Carbon capture and sequestration may not be part of existing source rules.

In preparation for the proposal to cut carbon from existing sources, public comment sessions will begin around the country this fall. Although the EPA would create and enforce the rules directly, states would determine how to meet limits.

Studies Look at Arctic Ice, Drilling  

Ahead of the U.S. Department of Interior’s release of minimum standards for oil and gas exploration in federal waters off Alaska’s Arctic coast, Pew Charitable Trusts has put out a 142-page document offering suggestions for how these guidelines might look. The study covers roughly 80 recommendations that include everything from the length of the drilling season to equipment durability and emergency spill protocol.

“We are recommending both exploration and production drilling restrictions and operational restrictions during certain hazardous Artic conditions,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s U.S. Arctic Program. “Our report is clear: If you can’t clean up a spill in Arctic conditions, then we recommend that drilling operations be limited to periods of time when you can clean up a spill.”

Arctic sea ice experienced record melts that opened shipping lanes for offshore drilling in 2012, but it appears to be making a comeback, according to the New York Times. That doesn’t necessarily mean the ice is recovering—measurements taken September 13 were still the sixth-lowest on record.

Higher Risk of Storms Forecast

Research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the eastern and central United States faces a higher risk of severe weather as global warming causes an increase in the conditions producing thunderstorms. By the middle of the century, the eastern U.S. could see severe storms an average of 7.5 spring days, with the largest increase to 2.4 days from March through May across portions of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

“We’re seeing that global warming produces more days with high CAPE [convective available potential energy] and sufficient shear to form severe thunderstorms,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, study co-author and associate professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford. This pattern, revealed by the research team’s computer modeling, may have been missed in previous work. Earlier studies concluded that although global warming increases CAPE, it decreases wind shear, and the two phenomena cancel each other out.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Proposed Rules to Limit Power Plant Emissions Expected This Week

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a move initiated by the Obama administration to address global changes in climate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected this week to release a proposal for regulations to reduce carbon emissions from new power plants.

Although details about the regulations remain confidential, the New York Times reports the proposal could contain standards different for coal plants than for natural gas power plants. The emissions limits for large natural gas plants may be kept at 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced, as proposed by the agency earlier this spring. The standard for coal, on the other hand, could be closer to 1,300 pounds per megawatt hour.

Regardless of the limits set on Friday, the proposal will give the country its first sense of how carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide from smokestacks and stores it underground, may be featured in a rule on curbing emissions from existing power plants. The new source performance standards will trigger a section of the Clean Air Act requiring the EPA to work with states to develop standards for existing plants by next summer.

This step to address the largest stationary sources of carbon dioxide in the United States promises to be controversial.

In a white paper, Republican lawmakers suggested the EPA was overreaching.

“The way in which EPA has ‘pushed the envelope’ in interpreting its legal authority … portends a similarly aggressive and unlawful approach to the regulation of existing [power plants],” the white paper states.

Moniz, McCarthy Testify on Climate Action Plan

President Obama’s climate action plan got its first airing by the nation’s top energy and environmental officials on Wednesday at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power. In testimony before the committee, the head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, addressed both legal questions and concerns about the future of coal, while Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz delivered a primer on the science behind climate change to Republicans.

McCarthy said the EPA and other government agencies were authorized to bring in new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even without new laws from Congress.

“We are not doing anything at the EPA and in the climate plan that goes outside the boundaries of what Congress has said is our mission and our authority,” McCarthy testified.

McCarthy and Moniz both attempted to allay fears about the future of coal, which figures prominently in one pillar of the climate plan that will be revealed this week when the EPA proposes new standards for new power plants. To lawmakers who suggested the EPA could stymie construction of new coal plants in the United States by making compliance with tighter emissions standards impossible, McCarthy responded that CCS “is technically feasible and it is available today.” The Associated Press reports that required installation of CCS technology will make construction of new coal-fired plants difficult, even though the rule to be announced on Friday is likely to be more lenient on coal-burning plants than initially proposed in March.

Study Looks at Methane Leaks Tied to Fracking

Natural gas drilling sites are leaking methane into the atmosphere at a rate slightly lower than estimates previously released by the EPA, according a study of emissions at multiple drilling sites.

Published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study finds natural gas sites release 0.42 percent of methane produced—roughly equal to the emissions from 10 million cars (subscription). The EPA analysis, which used data from 2011, estimated leakage at 0.47 percent, but other studies have found the leakage to be even higher.

Measurements for the PNAS study were taken in 2012, when new EPA rules required the use of emissions control technologies. Approximately 67 percent of the wells studied could capture or control 99 percent of potential emissions—a fact some said signaled the need for more policies to reduce sector-wide emissions while others called for better data.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Despite Dominance of Syria Debate, Environmental Policies Make Headway

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Disagreements over the Syrian chemical weapons crisis didn’t stop leaders from reaching a consensus to phase down production and consumption of refrigerant greenhouse gases and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at the G-20 Summit in Russia. The world’s top greenhouse gas emitters—the U.S. and China—agreed to set up a contact group to explore specific issues related to the phase down under the Montreal Protocol. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are hundreds to tens of thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Addressing HFCs would yield enormous climate benefits, reducing as much as 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2050, or roughly two years of global greenhouse gas emissions at current levels, the White House estimates.

In the Senate, debates surrounding a military force in Syria shifted to bipartisan energy efficiency legislation.

“The Republican Leader and I have agreed that the Senate will return to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I think it’s appropriate that rather than sit here and tread water or do nothing, that we move onto this bill.”

The bill, which is backed by the White House, is intended to train workers in energy efficient building technologies and bolster conservation efforts at federal agencies, among other provisions. The bill had been poised for floor action after long delays prior to questions over Syria. If passed, it would be the first considerable energy legislation in six years. Compared with the 310-page 2007 bill, which cost the government millions and strengthened fuel-economy standards for vehicles and renewable fuel standards for liquid fuels, the current bill is just 30 pages long, fully offsets costs and contains only one mandatory measure: making the federal government’s use of energy more efficient. The bill is not without pushback: the Heritage Foundation urges senators to reject the legislation.

Bird Lung a “Model” for Smokestack Clean Up

Better capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks could involve modeling new technology from bird lungs and the swim bladders of fish. Speaking at the 264th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Aaron P. Esser-Kahn of the University of California, Irvine, said his research team mimicked the arrangements of blood vessels in bird lungs and fish swim bladders in its latest study (subscription). The team envisions carbon dioxide capture units with an array of tubes made from porous membranes fitted side-by-side, similar to natural blood vessels. These units—scalable in size—would plug in to power plants, not unlike a car’s catalytic converter.

The research, now under review by a journal, was shared just days ahead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s expected release of proposed rules that establish limits on carbon emissions from new power plants. Power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the country, and a new report suggests three of the dirtiest power plants are in North Carolina.

Tidal Projects Slated to Harness Energy, Freshwater

Seventeen projects that focus on capturing tidal power will get $16 million in backing from the U.S. Department of Energy. The projects range from improving existing tidal power devices to monitoring impacts on marine life.

An Austrian marine developer has taken a different spin on harnessing waves. The company, Carnegie Wave Energy LTD., plans to use tidal power to create the world’s first wave-powered desalination plant. The plant will integrate reverse osmosis desalination technology with the infrastructure of an adjoining wave energy project.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Using the Clean Air Act to Regulate Carbon Emissions

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In an attempt to address global changes in climate, the Obama administration set specific deadlines for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use the Clean Air Act to cut carbon dioxide pollution from new and existing power plants.

Just weeks away from the deadline for release of proposed rules for new power plants (full disclosure: Duke scholars will preview pending climate change regulations live online Sept. 16), a new journal article claims the Clean Air Act has brought about beneficial changes. Tracing the rings of 100 to 500 year old eastern red cedars, scientists observed accelerated growth and photosynthesis starting just after the bill passed in 1970. Beforehand, core samples from the trees contained sulfur isotopes that pointed to pollution and carbon isotopes that showed that the trees’ stomata (pores regulating the exchange of carbon dioxide and water) were closing. By the 1980s, the stomata had begun to open and sulfur isotopes had approached levels not seen since the preindustrial age.

“There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” said Kansas State University’s Jesse Nippert of the trees located in the Appalachian Mountains. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in the terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have tremendous impact on the entire ecosystem.”

Using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from existing power plants raises questions. Doing so means the EPA must craft rules—to be proposed by June 2014—that match the uneven terrain of different states’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Midwest Energy News reports. As a result, state air pollution regulators are encouraging officials to maintain existing state proposals. In a letter, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies encouraged the EPA to acknowledge the “different makeup of existing fossil fuel generation in each state.”

Climate Change to Affect Future Fires, Storms

A rim fire burning in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park may be a taste of the types of fires some regions will experience in the future according to a new Harvard study, which suggests that wildfire seasons will last nearly three weeks longer, be twice as smoky and burn larger areas in western states by 2050. The findings, a Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences press release says, were based on a set of internationally recognized climate models, meteorological data and records from past fire activity.

“It turns out that, for the western United States, the biggest driver for fires in the future is temperature, and that result appears robust across models,” said co-author Loretta Mickley. “When you get a large temperature increase over time, as we are seeing, and little change in rainfall, fires will increase in size.”

A paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere came to a similar conclusion. It suggests that climate change’s effect on wildfires would vary widely, especially when precipitation patterns were factored in.

Although climate change could negatively influence wildfires, it may help steer superstorms away from the United States east coast. With stronger and possibly more frequent storms predicted, New York and much of the seaboard will be at a lower risk of a direct hit according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It looks, specifically, at atmospheric steering currents and suggests air patterns may block or push extreme weather offshore if greenhouse gas emissions were tripled by 2100 (subscription).

Some meteorologists disagreed with the findings, questioning the accuracy of the climate models and the conduct of the analysis.

Ice Wall Proposed to Contain Fukushima Leaks

Japan is proposing new measures to deal with increased radiation surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The proposal: invest some $470 million to build a wall of ice to contain the radioactive leaks.

Under the government’s plan, a wall of frozen soil will be constructed around the plant’s damaged reactors. Tubes might be used to carry a powerful coolant liquid as deep as 90 feet. The liquid would freeze the ground solid so no groundwater would be able to pass through the soil.

Last week, radiation levels at the plant reached as high as 1,800 millisieverts an hour—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. The chief of Japan’s nuclear watchdog authority, Shunichi Tanaka, said information given by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) on the radioactive contamination was “scientifically unacceptable,” likening use of “millisieverts per hour” to “describing how much something weighs by using centimetres” and adding that “becquerel” was the more appropriate measure. Experts say the radiation reading reported by TEPCO was taken close to the source and drops dramatically 20 inches away. Therefore, it would do little to harm workers wearing rudimentary protection at a normal distance.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.