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EPA describes how the power plants will regulate after setbacks of the Supreme Court

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WASHINGTON – Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling last week that criticized the government’s ability to limit pollution that causes global warming, the Biden administration plans to use other regulatory tools in hopes of achieving similar goals.

An important part of the plan: further limiting other pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants, such as soot, mercury and nitrogen oxides – a measure that will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“While the Court sided with special interests seeking to drive the country backward, it did not take away from EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and protect people from pollution,” White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy said in a statement. , referring to the Federal Agency for Environmental Protection.

White House officials said they believe President Biden’s goal of roughly halving emissions by the end of this decade and completely eliminating fossil fuel emissions by 2035 is still well within reach. The falling costs of renewable energies such as wind and solar will help, government officials said, as will an increasing number of state and local-level policies to combat climate change, along with new EPA regulations.

Still, the federal government’s piecemeal approach, which is still taking shape, could make it more difficult to achieve its goals, many observers said. Power plants that burn fossil fuels are one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is rapidly warming the planet.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision, which concluded that the EPA does not have broad powers to transform the country’s electrical system from fossil fuels, has deprived the Biden administration of a powerful tool, energy experts say. The ruling did not strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but only allowed for narrower policies to regulate how individual power plants operate.

That means the government’s backup strategies are unlikely to lead to a rapid clean energy metamorphosis unless the government acts quickly and aggressively, experts say. “This year and early next year are critical to determining whether the goals the government has set — both for the energy sector and the economy as a whole — will be achievable,” said John Larsen, a partner at the Rhodium Group. an energy research and consultancy firm.

Larsen said the Biden administration will have to put in “layers and layers” of new policies rather than relying on a single sweeping program. And, he added, “they have to act fast to really get those wheels spinning.”

In an interview this week, Joseph Goffman, President Biden’s nominee for EPA’s air chief, said the agency plans to propose a regulation early next year that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. The EPA will also propose a regulation around the same time to reduce emissions from new gas-fired power plants, he said.

Mr. Goffman declined to discuss details of what either plan could include, but said the EPA has “assembled a menu of three or four different approaches” that would fit within the Supreme Court’s mandate.

Mr Goffman said the EPA is still analyzing the Supreme Court ruling but said it does not appear to affect the agency’s current strategy. “The case hasn’t really taken anything off the menu that we’ve focused on,” he said.

He said the government’s climate goals can be met, but more action will be taken across the government, not just through the EPA.

The EPA is also enacting stricter restrictions on coal-fired power plants to reduce pollutants such as soot and nitrogen oxides and to enforce cleanup of water pollution from coal-fired power plants. Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, has said those and other rules will have the added benefit of also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He has also indicated that these rule changes could cause some coal plants to become too expensive to continue operating, causing more to close.

“Presenting all those rules to the industry at once gives the industry a chance to look at this set of rules all at once and say, ‘Is it worth doubling down on investment in this current facility? Or should we look at those costs and say now is the time to turn around and invest in a clean energy future?’” Mr Regan said at an oil and gas conference in March.

“If some of these facilities decide it’s not worth investing in, and you get an accelerated retirement, that’s the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Coal provides about 21 percent of electricity in the United States, but is responsible for more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production, making it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. According to the Energy Information Administration, about 28 percent of the coal -fired capacity is expected to be taken out of use in 2035, a change that is largely caused by the fact that gas -fired power stations have become cheaper in use, as well as renewable energy.

A person familiar with the Biden administration’s approach said the White House believes it could achieve economy-wide emissions reductions as much as 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade through the regulation of traditional technologies. pollutants such as mercury, acid gases and particulate matter. That would bring the country close to Mr Biden’s goal of cutting emissions by at least 50 percent over the same period from 2005 levels, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the strategy. to speak to the government.

Environmentalists said they are unsure of the Biden administration’s commitment.

“What we are seeing now is that the Biden administration is not acting with the necessary urgency,” said Weston Gobar, a spokesman for the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of black-led social justice and environmental groups. He called on Mr. Biden to declare a “climate emergency” under the National Emergencies Act to rapidly build out clean energy resources, and to urge Congress to suspend the filibuster to pass climate laws.

He praised the emerging EPA strategy, noting that most of the pollution from power plants disproportionately affects communities of color. But, he said, “It’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to directly regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, several experts said the EPA could advocate mixing relatively cleaner fuels, such as gas or hydrogen, to reduce emissions, along with other technology solutions. , such as trapping carbon dioxide from power plants before emissions can be released into the atmosphere.

Michelle Bloodworth, chief executive of America’s Power, a coal industry group, said an aggressive agenda leading to more coal-fired shutdowns would damage grid reliability.

“Electric utility officials have warned of the prospect of electricity shortages and blackouts in many parts of the country, and more coal shutdowns would only make the situation worse,” Ms Bloodworth said in a statement. She noted that more than 40 percent of the country’s coal fleet has already announced plans to shut down.

But eliminating emissions from those plants, or urging them to switch to cleaner fuels, is also critical to keeping global warming temperatures at relatively safe levels. Also important: how the EPA proposes to regulate emissions from more than 90 gigawatts of new gas-fired plants that are being planned, said Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Santa Barbara, California.

“That will have huge implications for the planet,” Ms Stokes said. “If we don’t have a plan for new gas plants, we won’t meet President Biden’s goals.”

Jeffrey Holmstead, an energy attorney who has served with the EPA in both Bush administrations, said the utilities he works with feel the new regulations for their power plants are an “afterthought” compared to the emissions cuts that could be made. achieved if Congress approved billions of dollars. dollars in tax credits for wind, solar and battery storage. That package is still being negotiated in Congress over objections from West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III, whose vote is key in the evenly divided Senate.

“It will be interesting to see how aggressively the government is going to regulate CO2 emissions,” Holmstead said. “What’s unclear is how high the agency’s priority will be.”

Scientists say that if warming rises more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the likelihood of catastrophic effects from climate change – worsening heat waves and droughts, intensifying storms and other crises – increases significantly. The planet has already warmed by an average of about 1.1 degrees Celsius and global emissions continue to rise.

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