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September 20, 2013

What the New Power Plant Carbon Standard Means for Coal

SmogIn the words of our Vice-President, this is a BFD. On Friday, September 20, the Environmental Protection Agency released draft carbon pollution standards for new power plants. If finalized as written, the draft will make it impossible to build a new, conventional, climate-destroying coal plant in the U.S. With climate-related disasters already landing on the doorsteps of millions of Americans, from Western wildfires to Superstorm Sandy, this new protection comes as welcome news.

As I wrote earlier this week, despite much whining by the coal industry, the simple fact is that no one is building new coal plants anymore. A decade-long struggle by over 100 organizations and thousands of volunteers successfully blocked the construction of 179 proposed coal plants that, had they been built, would have truly meant game over for our climate - not to mention creating more dangerous air and water pollution, plus slamming the door on future market opportunities for clean energy like wind and solar.

But those 179 new coal plants weren't built, thanks to leadership and hard work by conservatives and liberals, experts and everyday Americans, young and old alike. And now the EPA is putting a common sense standard in place, which says any new power plant built in the U.S. has to deal with its carbon pollution.

In short, this could be the end of the coal rush. As I wrote earlier this week, these new standards "confirm something investors, governors, community leaders, and everyday Americans have been saying for a decade - in the 21st century, it just doesn't make sense to build new coal-fired power plants. To be specific, we've said it 179 times." Regular Americans held back the tidal wave of new coal plants for a decade, and now we're a big step closer to ensuring that America's modern energy sources won't push our climate - and the life support systems of this planet - over the brink.

What does the standard do specifically, and what does it mean for the future of energy? Let's break it down:

  • New coal-fired power plants will have to meet a standard of 1,100 lbs of carbon per megawatt hour of energy produced. Conventional coal plants release at least 1,700 lbs/MWh. So meeting the new standard will require coal plants to capture their carbon and sequester it underground. That technology is being developed at a couple of power plants around the country, but it's far more costly than clean energy like wind and solar, which are becoming so affordable they’re actually starting to out-compete natural gas, even with  gas at record low prices.
  • New natural gas power plants will have to meet a carbon standard of 1,000 lbs/MWh. In our view, this is not nearly strong enough, as many modern-day natural gas plants are already beating this standard, releasing as little as 800 lbs/MWh. We plan to push hard to strengthen the gas standard, since we don't want to incentivize switching from one polluting, fossil fuel energy source to another.

President Obama put power plants at the center of his climate strategy for a simple reason - coal plants are our biggest source of carbon pollution. As the President put it in his June speech outlining his climate plan, "As a President, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing." Unfortunately, the coal barons are going to fight this every step of the way. Given the fierce coal industry opposition this standard has already generated, we need everyone to weigh in.

Stop carbon pollution1Now, it's your turn. The EPA will hold a 60-day public comment period on these standards that will include public hearings. You can weigh in right away to support strong carbon standards by taking action here. EPA released a first draft of this standard in April 2012 that received a record three million public comments, so this second draft will give us an opportunity to add even more voices to the overwhelming call for strong protections.

This fall, as EPA works to finalize this standard for new power plants, they will simultaneously begin work on the even more contentious standard for existing power plants, due next summer. In addition to hearings on the new plant standard, EPA will be holding listening sessions and stakeholder events around the country on the existing power plant rule throughout the fall. I hope you'll join us in the coming weeks to fight hard for strong carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. We are in a race against time to save our climate and communities, facing powerful opponents with deep pockets, and we need your help.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

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