The U.S. has begun to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants—quietly, with little fanfare and starting in Texas. The Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant in Llano County is being modernized with the installation of a combined cycle natural gas-fired turbine for improved efficiency at generating electricity. The refurbished "peaker" plant—so-called because it is fired up when electricity demand peaks in nearby Austin and elsewhere in Texas's grid—will cut smog-forming emissions. Sensors to monitor greenhouse gas pollution also will be added to the plant.

That qualifies the Texas plant for a greenhouse gas permit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which began this year requiring any project that has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions to obtain such permission. In most places, states will be in charge of that permitting process as they are for other kinds of air pollution, but in Texas—whose governor has threatened to secede as well as embarked on a run for president of these United States—the state has refused to do that oversight. So, the EPA is in charge of evaluating permit requests in Texas, as is also the case in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon and Wyoming for a variety of reasons.

What gets measured often gets managed, and the permits are a prelude to federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA is currently evaluating what might make sense as a standard, to be proposed under the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Any such standards will take effect no earlier than 2012.

The standard would not be part of a national cap-and-trade program for, say, carbon dioxide. Such a program failed to pass muster in Congress in 2009. Nonetheless, a new analysis of a similar regional program in the U.S.—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 northeastern states—shows that RGGI delivered some $1.6 billion in overall net benefits to the regional economy including jobs, largely from increases in energy efficiency (though power plant owners will see a decline in revenue of some $1.6 billion). RGGI also seems to have weaned its member states off $765 million worth of "imported" energy, or fossil fuels not produced in the region.

Paired with more stringent fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, greenhouse gas regulations will begin to reduce the emissions that are warming global temperaturesand represent the Obama administration's most significant efforts to combat climate change. But given the failure of efforts to capture and store carbon dioxide at projects such as Mountaineer and FutureGen, it will be a long time yet before anything besides an economic recession delivers big cuts in CO2 emissions from the U.S.

Image: Courtesy of LCRA