May 19, 2023 Tweet Environmental justice (EJ) advocates are skeptical of EPA's new proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from baseload coal- and gas-fired power plants and say it will bring additional harm to EJ areas and not alleviate impacts, contradicting a top Biden administration priority.
The advocates say EPA's plan to exempt new "peaker" plants from any requirements, allow coal plants to install carbon capture & sequestration (CCS) technology and allow new gas plants to co-fire with hydrogen will all result in more pollution in "sacrifice zones."
For example, Shelley Robbins of the Vermont-based Clean Energy Group, which seeks to "accelerate an equitable and inclusive transition to a resilient, sustainable, clean energy future," says the proposal's exemption of "peaker" plants, defined as units operating at a capacity factor of less than 20 percent, means that 1,239 plants -- or more than half of the nation's 2,636 power plants over 10 megawatts (MW) -- "are automatically by definition exempt from carbon emission controls," and "just get to continue to operate under their existing regulations."
The proposed existing gas plant standards only apply to existing "baseload" power plants, defined as those over 300 MW with a 50 percent capacity factor, which number just 147 plants out of the nation's 2,363 total.
The reason peakers "are problematic is because" they ramp up quickly, "which is why they are dirtier. They turn on and off quickly. . . . Some peakers are literally jet engines. Visualize that," Robbins says.
And while a baseload plant does a "decent job" of capturing nitrogen oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), "peaker plants don't."
The May 11 proposal is "disheartening, given all the good stuff that has gone along with" the Biden administration's Justice 40 initiative to steer clean infrastructure benefits to EJ areas. "I want to be cheerleading the EPA for doing good things, and maybe they will turn their attention to peakers. But I think they did a big disservice by not acknowledging the impact of what they are not looking at this go-round."
Abbe Ramanan, also of the Clean Energy Group, adds that overall, the proposal results in "resigning EJ communities to decades more of the same level of pollution," which is a "huge missed opportunity for EPA to take a harder stance." And while there is "language in the rule [on] prioritizing EJ communities, the technical details suggest that is very counterintuitive if you are actually trying to improve outcomes" in those areas.
Even key administration allies are stopping short of backing the proposal. In a May 12 statement, Beverly Wright, founding executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), praised as "bold and necessary" the series of recent EPA measures addressing power plants' pollution, citing tougher air toxics standards and ozone requirements, though she stopped short of directly praising the GHG rule.
"With each announcement, we are even more encouraged by the Biden Administration's commitment to climate justice and protecting our fence line communities. This is the type of action required to meet this moment in the crisis we are facing now," Wright said.
Wright's hesitation is not surprising as she and other WHEJAC members have strongly criticized the administration's support for CCS.
Robbins and other critics also point to the EJ analysis EPA included in its regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for the proposed regulation to complain it is not connected to any specific provision of the rule or any pollution control technology considered.
The analysis does not weigh options to reduce emissions, and instead looks at who lives near large coal-fired power plants. Robbins says EPA analyzed populations within 10 and 50 kilometers of the plants, with the RIA finding "that this action is unlikely to mitigate or exacerbate PM2.5 exposures disparities across populations of EJ concern analyzed."
A separate EPA EJ fact sheet says the rule should "lead to modest but widespread reductions in ambient levels of PM2.5 exposures that are similar in magnitude across all racial, ethnic, income and linguistic groups. Similarly, EPA found that the proposed standards are anticipated to lead to modest but widespread reductions in ambient levels of ground-level ozone for some of the nation's population."
The fact sheet adds that while reductions in both PM2.5 and ozone are "small relative to baseline levels, and although disparities in PM2.5 and ozone exposure would continue to persist . . . EPA's analysis indicates that the air quality benefits of these proposals would be broadly distributed."
But Robbins points to an EPA acknowledgement in the 618-page proposal that it "has designed these proposed standards and emission guidelines in a way that is compatible with the nation's overall need for a reliable supply of affordable electricity."
Robbins calls that a "devastating statement" because, "what that says to me is we are sacrificing your community for the grid."
Another EJ advocate criticizes the agency's EJ analysis, noting that "nothing in the EJ discussions had any effect on the proposal."
The rule acknowledges that proceeding with CCS and hydrogen "may leave communities continuing to face disproportionate impacts," while also noting that a CCS retrofit at a major coal plant could trigger new source review permitting requirements, providing an opportunity for the public to call for more stringent emissions limits, this source notes.
Even so, the EJ analysis in the RIA "is beyond irrelevant, asks the wrong questions and arrives at irrelevant answers, typical of so much misuse of statistics to look at EJ. Window dressing, perhaps well-intentioned, but designed and carried out by staff either unfamiliar or incapable of translating community-level EJ issues into meaningful technical exercises."
The source adds that EPA "acts like (and may be constrained) by its choice of basing everything on Clean Air Act section 111 and not feeling free to ramp up the transition off fossils fuels."
EPA air official Kevin Culligan appeared to echo this view, telling a May 16 EJ public engagement call that the rule is not an attempt to overhaul the electricity system.
"We do expect some co-benefits," he said, but added, "One thing I want to help make sure people understand" is the limits of EPA's authority. "This is not EPA putting out a rule saying this is the best way to generate power. This is a rule saying, if a company chooses to generate power with these means, these are the controls they need to install."
Culligan added that the proposal "provides a floor," and noted, "EPA's role is ensuring that" whatever fuel source utilities choose, "they use the best controls on it." He acknowledged that "may not be the most satisfying answer" but stressed that the agency is responding to the Supreme Court's West Virginia v. EPA decision last year that said the agency exceeded its authority in the 2015 Clean Power Plan, which premised targets on shifting to lower-carbon generation.
An EPA spokeswoman says the proposal is "focused around the largest sources of emissions in the power sector, and aims to impose robust emission standards based on available technologies. We are taking comment on many issues in order to get feedback and make improvements to the rule, as part of the public comment process."
Further, the spokeswoman notes the proposal requires states to conduct meaningful engagement with EJ areas as they develop compliance plans.
And she says in conjunction with other policies, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the proposal "will play a significant role in reducing GHGs and move us a step closer to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, which is already having a disproportionate impact on EJ communities."
However, Clean Energy Group's Robbins says the rule's exemption for peaker plants is likely to be especially burdensome on poor and minority communities.
Using EPA's most recent Power Plants & Neighboring Communities Mapping Tool, which was last updated in 2019 but should be updated again this summer, Robbins estimates that peaker plants, mostly located in EJ areas, affect 61 million people living 3 miles away or less. Meanwhile, baseload power has 6 million people living 3 miles away or less, meaning 10 times as many people are affected by peaker plant emissions.
She notes that EPA in the EJ analysis looked at much larger swaths of populations, living within 10 and 50 kilometers of coal plants.
The 1,239 peaker plants average NOx emission at 15.09 pounds per MW hour, compared to baseload plants' average NOx emissions of 0.195 pounds per MW hour.
For GHGs peaker plants emit an average of 3,032 pounds of carbon dioxide-equivalent per MW hour, compared to 813 pounds of CO2e per MW hour for baseload.
The annual GHG emissions from peaker plants in 2019 was 158 million tons, compared to 292 million tons for baseload plants.
But Robbins adds that there are 977 plants that are not defined as either baseload or peakers but also do not face any requirements under the proposal, though EPA does seek comment on whether and how to address non-baseload power.
Ramanan also tells Inside EPA that the group is seriously concerned that EPA is proposing to allow existing coal baseload plants to install CCS, a technology the group believes is unproven.
While some mainstream environmental groups are happy with this part of the proposal -- and see it as EPA "calling industry's bluff" to prove that a 90 percent capture rate is feasible or being forced to retire -- her group is skeptical. "I think that is a very generous interpretation," given serious questions about how securely carbon can be stored and the efficacy of CO2 pipelines.
There are also questions about how strictly EPA will interpret a 90 percent capture rate, with Ramanan citing the potential for loopholes.
EPA promoting CCS is "contributing to the concern that" EJ areas "will become a dumping ground for new uses of fossil fuel infrastructure," she warns.
Further, CCS does not reduce conventional air emissions such as NOx. While EPA is predicting an overall NOx reduction, "most of the analysis we've seen is if you use more fossil fuel for CCS you will see an increase in emissions."
There is already great concern about the health impacts of existing NOx, with a new study finding costs already at $77 billion per year.
Meanwhile, the EPA proposal includes an option for gas plants to blend with hydrogen, which Ramanan says also means NOx will increase, because hydrogen emits more NOx than methane.
Also, Juan Jhong Chung, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, tells Inside EPA that EJ groups are skeptical of EPA claims that there will be overall reductions in NOx and other pollutants that harm public health. "If you take into account the extension of the life of fossil gas and coal, the additional air pollution from NOx and [volatile organic compounds] through CCS, it will actually be the opposite. It will increase some of those localized air pollution concerns in EJ areas," he warns. "Overall, we are really disappointed at how the EPA has been looking at EJ issues in the rule." -- Dawn Reeves (firstname.lastname@example.org)