Freedom to burn (fossil fuels, ourselves, the planet)

Once again, plans to reduce US emissions have been announced, and, once again, they've met backlash: is it government overreach?
15 May 2023

On Thursday May 11, the Biden administration unveiled a plan to slash US greenhouse gas emissions from its power industry. The proposal would limit how much carbon dioxide power plants can emit, putting the industry on a years-long course to install billions of dollars’ worth of new equipment, or shut down.

Such steps have long been called crucial to curtailing global warming. However, the counter argument is that these plans represent government overreach and threaten to destabilize the electric grid (as wearing masks/gun control threaten personal freedom, the Second Amendment and the *cough, cough* ($28bn as of 2018) American gun industry).

In order to meet the standards set by the proposal, power companies would have to install carbon capture equipment (CCS) that can siphon the CO2 from a plant’s smokestack before it reaches the atmosphere or use super-low-emissions hydrogen as fuel.

“Today we’re proposing new technology standards that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power plants, protecting health and protecting our planet,” Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told students at the University of Maryland.

The EPA projects that the plan will cut carbon emissions from coal plants and new gas plants by 617 tons between 2028 and 2042. That’s equivalent to reducing the annual emissions of 137 million passenger vehicles.

The new power plant rules have been crafted in part by leveraging the power of the federal Clean Air Act. They come along with a suite of other measures aimed at tackling vehicle emissions, as well as potent greenhouse gases, methane and HFCs, that would reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emission by the equivalent of 15 billion tonnes 2022 and 2055.

Climate advisor to the White House, Ali Zaidi, told reporters that the proposal will keep the US on track to meet its goal of net-zero power sector emissions by 2035. “When you look at what is in the rule and what is proposed, we are absolutely in line with the president’s goal,” he said.

US emissions less important than coal production?

It’s taken more than 18 months for the proposal to be finalized. Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the EPA couldn’t impose a system-wide shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but allowed it to regulate plants by setting technology-based standards.

Patrick Morrissey, West Virginia Attorney General, led the legal challenge against previous EPA carbon rules. In a statement, he said that the coal-producing state of West Virginia will “be ready once again to lead the charge in the fight against federal overreach” and said the proposal “just seems designed to scare more coal-fired power plants into retirement.”

Compliance will cost the power industry over $10 billion, according to EPA estimates, though new subsidies available in the Inflation Reduction Act (Biden’s signature climate law) will help. Further, the climate and health benefits are at around $85 billion.

In 2030 alone, the proposals will prevent 1300 premature deaths, the EPA said.

The arguments raised on both sides of the proposed changes echo the same ones that have been ongoing for years – halting any hope of real change: long-term conservation vs. economic loss.