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The Answer to Coal Climate Pollution Is Natural Gas and Carbon Capture, EPA Says

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Courtesy of EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency has new rules for how much carbon dioxide power plants can spew. Designed to ensure that no new plants built in the U.S. can be highly polluting, the regulations would prohibit the dirtiest coal-fired power plants without additional technology to capture and store CO2. The trouble is: hardly any such coal-fired power plants are being built in the U.S.

This year, two new coal-fired power plants have been completed. Next year, that number may well be zero, the long term projection from EPA for how many coal plants without climate pollution control technology will be built. The exceptions will be the new coal-fired power plants that already incorporate CO2 capture and storage, like the Kemper Plant in Mississippi or the Texas Clean Energy Project under construction. But this is not because of the new EPA rules for the most part. It is because it is cheaper (and easier) to build a new power plant that burns natural gas instead.

Perhaps not coincidentally, new EPA rules for CO2 emissions are set at the level that natural gas-burning power plants already achieve. In other words, to meet this new standard gas power plants have to do nothing. The rule stipulates that natural gas must not emit (on average) more than 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour while coal plants must not emit more than 1,100 pounds per megawatt-hour averaged over a year (a change from the original proposal that had both types of power plants meeting the same standard).


"PC" stands for pulverized coal and "NGCC" stands for natural gas combined cycle. As the chart shows, CCS or natural gas are the answer to meeting the EPA's new power plant emission standards. Courtesy of the National Energy Technology Laboratory

This is hardly a ground-breaking effort to combat climate change. Natural gas itself is largely methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But burning methane produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of burning coal. As the EPA puts it: “there will always be incremental climate and human health benefits [from] a new natural gas combined cycle unit relative to a new coal unit.” But such a power plant still produces nearly 2 million metric tons of CO2 per year. So, although natural gas is cleaner than coal, one day even natural gas power plants will require CO2 capture and storage technology.

There’s good news on that front. The technology exists and has been used for years. There was even a near full-scale demonstration project in West Virginia—the heart of coal country—that ran for a few years with success. That project shut down because the technology, obviously, costs more than just freely spewing CO2 into the atmosphere as is currently done. The utility didn’t want to pay that extra cost, the federal government didn’t want to pay that extra cost and the local governments refused to force customers to pay that extra cost. That problem hasn’t gone away though the U.S. Department of Energy is currently offering $8 billion in loan guarantees for this type of project.

The new standards (peruse them below) would also only require what the EPA is calling “partial CCS,” that is a coal-fired power plant wouldn’t need to capture all of its climate altering CO2, just somewhere between 30 and 50 percent, depending on the type of unit. So a coal-fired unit that currently spews around 4 million metric tons of CO2 per year would emit no more than 3 million metric tons per year to comply with this rule. As a result, even EPA officials and the standards themselves admit that these rules will not produce any reduction in CO2 pollution that is being emitted now.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted at the National Press Club on September 20, however, that the new standards lay out a path forward for coal in a carbon constrained world—the ubiquitous acronym CCS—a sentiment shared by her counterpart Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz. But these rules don’t apply, at all, to the 1,400 old coal-fired boilers in the U.S., not even those “undergoing modifications or to reconstructed units,” even though such units are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. CO2 pollution. We’ve seen this before. When new rules came in for SO2 pollution to cut back on acid rain, old coal-fired power plants enjoyed an exemption. So, instead of retiring old coal-fired power plants, industry kept running and running and running them. Many of them, some built in the 1930s and 1940s, are still burning coal today.

The EPA is expected to propose rules for these old plants in 2014, about the same time this rule for new plants may become law, barring inevitable delays due to lawsuits. Then and only then will we know how serious the putative “war on coal” is.

Regardless, the rules for existing plants will ultimately be set by states on a state by state basis, while complying with an overall EPA standard. With other types of pollution, this has led to far different standards for SO2 in New York than in Ohio, for example. But it doesn’t matter where a molecule of CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere and an individual molecule can persist for hundreds of years. The states will also decide who gets to pay for this new CCS technology.

And only when CO2 rules for new power plants drop below the levels achieved already by natural gas power plants will we know how serious the U.S. government is about reducing greenhouse gas concentrations—which touched 400 parts-per-million in the atmosphere for the first time in human history this past May.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Noone 3:59 pm 09/20/2013

    “There was even a near full-scale demonstration project in West Virginia—the heart of coal country—that ran for a few years (then) shut down because the technology, obviously, costs more than just freely spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. The utility didn’t want to pay that extra cost, the federal government didn’t want to pay that extra cost and the local governments refused to force customers to pay that extra cost.”

    But now we are eager to dive into the empty pool of national economic suicide, in which family annual income savings (hah!) disappear into higher electricity cost green holes, with ZERO corresponding increase in incomes.

    Oh, sorry! Instead of saving ANY money ANY more, EPA is promising less pollution will allow you several more years of life…on dialysis and pacemakers…

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  2. 2. sethdayal 8:02 pm 09/20/2013

    More proof that Big Oil owns Obama.

    Real science peer reviewed and published in reputable journal shows that the when the copious methane leaks from production to delivery are added in gas, produces more GHG’s than coal.

    Naturally Big Oil lobbyists have ensured that the EPA doesn’t include leaks in its numbers.

    The cost of natural gas is kept low by Big Oil dumping in its effort to sidetrack nuclear and replace coal. With production costs double the current price they can’t keep this up forever.

    Norway just packed in its “moonshot’ carbon capture experiment as impossible. Big Oil’s Obama uses the never never land carbon capture scam as a diversion to cover up his zero commitment to reducing GHG emissions.

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  3. 3. rkipling 11:05 pm 09/20/2013

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  4. 4. Owl905 1:48 am 09/21/2013

    The stake in the ground has been set by the EPA. Everyone else can navel gaze as along as they want, but GHG pollution emissions are on the target. This should have happened 15 years ago, with a buildup period to make it clear. But the pro-pollutionists trotted out Maunder Minimums and IDSO fertilization results … so now it hits the coal industry in the teeth. Congrats, pro-pollutionists – you pushed it here, and this one is one you.

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  5. 5. scientific earthling 2:52 am 09/21/2013

    Do nothing, let business do as it pleases: pollute, pollute and pollute some more. Sacrifice & exterminate all the mega species to attain the perfect solution for planet earth; the extinction of the most arrogant stupid species – Homo sapien. The planet will return to being a beautiful place.

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  6. 6. Carlyle 8:21 am 09/21/2013

    When they recognise that nuclear is the only way to SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the burning of fossil fuels we will be able to take them seriously. At present they are simply a left wing advocacy group with a socialist agenda.

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  7. 7. rkipling 9:35 am 09/21/2013

    This is what I found on Wikipedia. (Yes I know people know how to use Wikipedia. But so it isn’t just my take on it.)

    “Capturing and compressing CO2 may increase the fuel needs of a coal-fired CCS plant by 25–40%.[4] These and other system costs are estimated to increase the cost of the energy produced by 21–91% for purpose built plants.[4] Applying the technology to existing plants would be more expensive especially if they are far from a sequestration site. Recent industry reports suggest that with successful research, development and deployment (RD&D), sequestered coal-based electricity generation in 2025 may cost less than unsequestered coal-based electricity generation today.[5]”

    If the technology looks to be that much better in 10 to 12 years, why not wait? The Norwegians couldn’t make current technology work. And nothing I’ve seen fills me with confidence about long term carbon storage. The folks who are the greatest advocates do not understand this isn’t that easy.

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  8. 8. sault 11:15 am 09/22/2013


    This new rule is basically calling the coal industry on their BS. For years, they delayed necessary government action forcing them to clean up some of their mess by claiming the “clean coal” technology was just around the corner. And this trickery came on the heels of getting dozens of old, dirty coal plants “grandfathered” out of the Clean Air Act and its amendments, exposing us all unnecessarily to higher pollution levels just to squeeze more profit out of these plants. They even got the government to fork over billion$$$ in pork to finance some demonstration projects. But it was all a ruse. To capture just 10% of global coal emissions would require pumping the same volume of liquid CO2 INTO of the ground as the world’s ENTIRE oil industry pumps OUT of the ground in the form of crude oil. Yeah, this isn’t going to work. And after giving the coal industry waay too much time as they tried to fool us into thinking otherwise, we’re finally making them deal with cleaning up their own mess.

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  9. 9. rkipling 3:44 pm 09/22/2013


    You indicated you want to have a real discussion. Let’s say I’m skeptical, but I’m willing to give it another try. Before we get into particulars, it would help me to better understand where you are coming from in general. Now these are serious questions to me and are not intended as traps or straw men, or anything of the like. If I can understand your mindset, perhaps we can communicate better?

    You frequently accuse fossil fuel industries of duping people and government into tax breaks, pork demonstration projects, etc. The drift I get is that you view all fossil fuel companies as evil doers intentionally stealing from people and fouling the environment. If I have misstated your position, please correct me. Are there any ethical fossil fuel companies in your view?

    Do you realize that sequestering CO2 in geological formations is more difficult than extracting oil and natural gas? Not every point source of CO2 is or can be located above suitable geological formations suitable for sequestration.

    Do you realized that substantial additional fossil fuel must be extracted and burned to produce the necessary energy for sequestration?

    Do you agree that higher energy prices reduce economic activity? This harms the poor most.

    Let’s start with these questions and see where we go.

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  10. 10. rkipling 1:43 pm 09/23/2013


    Never mind, I got your answer on a different topic. My skepticism was well founded.

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