After 17 months of outcry, resulting in more than 2.6 million public comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally renounced its 2012 proposal "Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units" in favor of a new proposal on Friday, September 20, 2013. Instead of the provisions that many pointed to as red tape designed to bring an end to the coal industry, the EPA has apparently accepted the idea of pursuing a different solution.
As the EPA announced its new proposal to modify the Clean Air Act, many have questioned the value of the new provisions that take a more lenient stance than the previous set. Since the president announced his support of new regulations on emissions from power plants, the upswing of controversy over any new regulation has reached a fever pitch, but how are today's proposed regulations different from those made in 2012, and how will they impact the energy industry as a whole?
To answer those questions, we'll take a closer look at the specific requirements of both the 2012 and 2013 proposals, and from there we can begin to understand the larger implications of the changes.
What the EPA wanted in 2012
When the EPA first laid out its proposal to limit the carbon emissions of power plants across the U.S., the plan was aggressive. All future fossil fuel-burning power plants would be required to cap emissions at a stringent 1,000 lbs of CO2/MWh.
In a bid to buy in support from the industry, the EPA even included a graduated plan to allow plants to meet emissions requirements over a 30-year period. Initially, plants would have to limit their emissions to 1,800 lbs of CO2/MWh, before cutting down to just 600 lbs of CO2/MWh by the 11th year of the regulations – effectively averaging out to 1,000 lbs of CO2 emissions per megawatt hour over 30 years.
Once announced, backlash was swift, particularly from the coal industry. While cleaner-burning natural gas plants would be able to reduce emissions to those levels at minimal expense, coal plants were another story altogether. Compounded with the cheap price of natural gas on the market at the time, the EPA's proposal was quickly deemed another attempt by the Obama administration to wage a war on coal.
Take 2: 2013's new standards
The new proposal put forth by the EPA on September 20 is a major departure from the previous document released just 17 months prior. Rather than subjecting all new fossil fuel-burning power plants to the same emissions caps, there are now stipulations based on facility size and fuel type. On top of that even the most stringent emissions cap in the new proposal for coal plants, now set at 1,100 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour, is above the previous proposal's cap.
As before, the newest EPA proposal doesn't include any provisions for existing power plants – only those that will be built in the future. The administration and the EPA, however, have assured environmentalists that an additional proposal to deal with existing power plants will be revealed in the summer of 2014.
At some point, the public has to question whether the uproar over the 2012 proposal effectively brought an end to the Obama administration's war on coal.