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The Big Problem With the EPA’s New Rules

They fall short of President Biden’s power plant goals — and he’s running out of time and tools.

A natural-gas plant.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As you may have heard, the Biden administration on Thursday proposed regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from new and existing power plants.

The rule is a landmark. If implemented successfully, it would mark the first time that the United States has regulated emissions from existing power plants, one of the largest sources of carbon pollution in the economy.

Yet coverage of the rule has deviated in some respects from what it would actually do. The rule falls short of its goals in at least one important way: It will not meet President Joe Biden’s targets for the power sector.

Soon after he took office, President Biden committed the United States to generating 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2035. It is part of his broader Paris Agreement pledge to slash U.S. carbon pollution in half by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.

But the EPA’s proposal would not achieve a zero-carbon power grid even by 2040, five years after the president’s deadline. If the rule is implemented, then the American electricity system will emit 458 million metric tons of carbon pollution in 2040. While that is a significant reduction — it’s about 70% lower than today’s annual emissions — it is obviously not zero.

“These rules and this section of the Clean Air Act is not designed to achieve President Biden’s clean power targets,” Charles Harper, a policy analyst at Evergreen, a climate advocacy organization and think tank, told me.

“These power-sector rules are an important contributor to reducing emissions to the power sector, but they alone won’t get to a zero-carbon grid — and that’s by design within the statute.”

On one hand, the EPA’s proposal reveals the success of President Biden’s flagship climate accomplishment, the Inflation Reduction Act. The EPA’s proposal can mandate carbon capture and storage so aggressively because that law’s subsidies and tax credits made it economically feasible for utilities. The proposal is “designed very, very well to work in tandem with the IRA tax credits,” Nick Bryner, a law professor at Louisiana State University, told me.

In fact, according to the rule’s analysis, the climate law — and not the proposed rule — will drive most of the emissions declines in the power sector from 2028 to 2040. The rule is tinkering around the edges of a much larger transformation.

But on the other hand, the rule reveals the limits of that metamorphosis. The Biden administration has adopted more climate policy than any previous administration, yet they are running out of tools to make their climate goals a reality. The EPA will be lucky to finalize these rules before the end of Biden’s first — and potentially only — term. And it is not working on any other proposed power-sector regulation that might get the country all the way to Biden’s 2035 goal.

At this point, Biden may need a revolution of state and local climate advocacy — not to mention another four years in office, and perhaps even another congressional majority — to achieve his most ambitious climate goals. The planet is only getting hotter.


Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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