Mar 1, 2024 - Energy & Environment

EPA tries the Goldilocks route on power plants

Illustration of a natural gas-fired power plant with a large asterisk

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Biden officials face a complicated political landscape as they spare existing gas-fired power plants — at least for now — from looming electricity carbon emissions rules.

Why it matters: Power generation is the nation's second-largest source of CO2, but neither Obama-era regulations, nor a more modest Trump-era rule, survived court challenges.

What's new: The EPA on Thursday said final rules this spring will impose standards on today's coal-fired power plants, and gas plants built in the future.

  • But in a pivot from draft rules created last May, existing gas plants — the largest U.S. power source — will instead be covered in a later rule addressing both CO2 and air pollutants.

"This stronger, more durable approach will achieve greater emissions reductions than the current proposal," EPA head Michael Regan said.

The intrigue: The shift carries risks for Biden's agenda.

  • Pollution rules take a long time to write, so standards for current gas plants probably won't be done pre-election and could stretch into next year (or even beyond).
  • They could be abandoned by a second Trump administration, if he's reelected.
  • And depending on D.C.'s power balance, it could be vulnerable under the Congressional Review Act — a tool for killing rules issued late in presidential terms.

Between the lines: The politics are tricky, too.

  • The pivot drew cheers from some activists, who cited plans to address localized air pollution, but criticism from some quarters.
  • Liberal Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called it "inexplicable," yet the NYT reports some swing state Democrats disliked the earlier plan.

What's next: We'll be watching for signs it moves the political needle in either direction — and watching the clock.

Go deeper