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We’re leading an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

EPA Must Reduce Power Plant Pollution Sooner, Not Later

From North Carolina to Texas, gas and coal plants will continue to spew unlimited carbon pollution into the air for many years unless EPA speeds up its compliance timelines.

Low angle shot of a fossil fuel power plant smoke stack and facility.
© 2017 Chad Davis/Flickr CC BY 2.0



On April 25, 2024, EPA finalized the first-ever power plant pollution standards for the existing U.S. coal fleet and newly proposed gas plants, with most covered plants required to cut their pollution by 90 percent by 2032. Together, these rules are estimated to curb over 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon pollution and create $270 billion in climate benefits and $120 billion in public health benefits.

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In May 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its long-awaited proposal to regulate carbon pollution for new and existing power plants, representing the agency’s biggest step to tackle power sector climate pollution to date. And while it was a big step in the right direction, there are three critical ways EPA must strengthen this proposal to reduce power sector pollution that will protect the planet and public health, EPA must:  

  1. Expand the number of plants covered by these rules
  2. Speed up compliance timeline
  3. Increase safeguards and community input

Bottom line: EPA must strengthen its proposal to go further, faster. 

Right now, fossil fuel-fired power plants are allowed to spew unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air without federal regulation. This not only puts our climate goals at risk but causes many communities to suffer from the health effects of breathing in dirty power plant emissions. Thankfully, this rule changes that, and a portion of our nation’s existing coal and gas fleet will finally be held accountable for the climate pollution it emits. But how soon these power plants are held accountable is critical to determining how successful the proposal will be at mitigating carbon pollution. So let’s zero in on the second part of the ask: going faster.


EPA’s compliance timelines: Explained

EPA’s proposal needs to dramatically reduce pollution at a pace aligned with our clean energy goals. EPA sets this pace through what are called compliance timelines: the deadlines the agency sets for power plants to be in full compliance with the rule. The problem is that these timelines are currently too far out and would allow many plants to continue to pollute for a long time before the full force of EPA’s rule kicks in. 


Type of Power Plant

Current Timeline

Suggested Timeline

Existing coal Can continue to operate with only limited carbon reductions as long as they retire before 2040 Full compliance by 2030 and the deadline to retire should be no later than 2035
Existing gas Full compliance by 2035 Full compliance by 2030
New gas (proposed but not yet built) Requirements don’t phase in until 2035, meaning gas plants could come online in the meantime without reducing their emissions Full compliance required when a new plant first turns on


Under the current proposal, new gas plants would not be required to reduce carbon pollution significantly until at least 2035. Existing gas plants wouldn’t have to be in full compliance until at least 2035. And existing coal plants could operate without meaningful carbon reductions for years as long as they retire before 2040. In other words, EPA’s lead times are too long. 

These long compliance timelines are totally out of step with the need to decarbonize our electricity grid by 80 percent by 2030 and fully by 2035. That’s why compliance timelines are absolutely critical to improving this rule. In all three categories—existing gas, coal, and new gas—EPA can and should expedite the compliance timelines to match the rate our power sector decarbonization goals demand and to create the liveable future Americans deserve. 

Fortunately, there is still time to show the Biden administration that moving these compliance timelines up is critical to protecting our climate and our communities: EPA is accepting public comments on this proposal until August 8, 2023. So, we know that EPA’s current proposed timeline is too slow. But what does this mean in practice for the existing coal, existing gas, and new gas fleet? And what would an updated, more ambitious EPA timeline look like in contrast?


What is EPA’s proposed compliance timeline for existing coal-fired power plants?

Let’s start with EPA’s proposed timeline for existing coal-fired power plants. Under the current proposal, existing coal plants could continue to operate without meaningfully having to reduce their carbon pollution for years as long as they retire before 2040. 

Let’s put that timescale into context. Seventeen years ago, Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable was playing on repeat on the radio, Pirates of the Caribbean II was the blockbuster hit, and Twitter (then called “Twttr,” and now changing its brand by the day) had just launched. If that exercise of going down memory lane didn’t make you feel too old, just imagine the world 17 years from now and how much can change. 

In just the past few years, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of climate change-fueled wildfires, floods, and heatwaves devastate large parts of the country—and the planet. And to put a finer point on the urgency of the moment we’re in, this year has been the hottest on record in the past 125,000 years. In short, we don’t have another 17 years to wait. 

If coal plants retire between 2032 and 2034, they would be allowed to run without additional pollution controls as long as they limit operations to 20 percent of the year. If they retire between 2035 and 2039, they must co-fire their coal boilers with 40 percent natural gas—only a 16 percent reduction in carbon pollution. These are relatively minimal pollution regulations and allow outdated coal plants to emit carbon pollution well past the 2035 deadline the administration has set for 100 percent  carbon-free electricity. Only plants that plan to stay online through 2040, nearly two decades away, would be held fully accountable for their carbon pollution beginning in 2030.

Under EPA’s proposed rules, coal plants can continue to pollute carbon with minimal regulations until they retire. Map source: Sierra Club. ©2023 Sierra Club. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Let’s look at the Belews Creek Steam Station as an example. Belews Creek is in Stokes County, North Carolina. It is Duke Energy’s largest coal-burning power plant in the Carolinas—producing 2270 MW and 6,874,176 tons of carbon pollution per year. Because Duke plans on retiring this plant in 2039, the only regulation it must adhere to in the next 16 years is to co-fire its coal boilers with 40 percent natural gas. This would lead to only a 16 percent reduction in carbon pollution—at best, given the super-pollutant methane gas that can leak from natural gas systems. 

Under EPA’s proposed rules, there’s a similar story for many other plants in our nation’s coal fleet. In fact, there are over 100 coal-fired units like Belews Creek across the country that, because they plan to retire before 2040, would be able to continue to pollute carbon with minimal regulations. These coal plants can and should be held accountable for the pollution they’ve emitted uncontrolled for decades, and in Belews Creek Steam Station’s case, for 48 years. 

Beyond warming our planet and rapidly accelerating climate change, coal plants produce lethal pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particulates that are directly linked to asthma, breathing problems, heart problems, brain damage, and cancer. Letting these coal plants continue to operate for additional years also means thousands of lives cut short—and it doesn’t have to be this way. 

That’s why we’re calling on EPA to remove all retirement loopholes beginning in 2035. This would mean plants retiring from 2030-2034 would be required to substantially curtail their operations to 20 percent of the year. Even the utility lobby has advocated for a retirement exemption through 2028, or in some cases, the early 2030s. This leaves EPA’s 2040 deadline past the timeline industry has set for itself. No coal plant should be operating past 2035 without reducing its emissions by 90 percent. EPA must move this timeline up in its final rule so the dirtiest fossil plants in the country can’t continue to pollute for years past when we need to decarbonize.


What is EPA’s proposed compliance timeline for new gas power plants?

Now, let’s take a look at EPA’s proposed timeline for new gas-fired power plants. Under the current proposal, new gas plants (those that have been proposed but not yet built) would not need to be in full compliance with the rule until 2035, which means all gas plants that are still in the planning phase could come online in the meantime with no abatement technology. 

So now you’re probably wondering, how many new gas plants are planning to come online before 2035? The answer is a lot—there are currently at least 100 proposed gas plants in the U.S. Fossil gas is currently the country’s largest source of electricity and projections are growing. While some of these gas plants in the queue may not get approved, many will, and they would not have to meaningfully regulate their carbon emissions for over a decade, until 2035. That timeline simply does not align with our carbon-free electricity goals.

View of a lake in Baytown, Texas. A fossil fuel plant can be seen in the distance behind the tree perimeter of the lake.

ExxonMobil facility seen from a creek in Baytown, where the Cedar Bayou plant would be built. Many proposed gas plants, similar in size and emissions to Cedar Bayou, would not be required to meaningfully regulate carbon pollution until 2035. (© 2008 Baytownbert/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Take the proposed Cedar Bayou Combined Cycle Plant. If approved, this plant would be in Baytown, Texas, where it will emit over a million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. From when it becomes operational to the year 2035, this plant will not be meaningfully regulated for the carbon it emits. And there are many, many more proposed gas plants around the country that are similar in size and emissions to the Cedar Bayou plant that would not be required to use carbon pollution controls until 2035. This could mean millions of tons of additional planet-warming carbon pollution released into the atmosphere that we simply cannot afford. 

That’s why we’re calling on EPA to require all new gas plants to be in full compliance with the rule starting on initial operation. By virtue of still being in the design phase, these new plants have ample flexibility to meet new regulations and prepare for their long-term climate impact. Requiring compliance immediately would send a powerful market signal to the gas industry that the federal government is officially turning a page and will now hold all future gas plants accountable for the carbon they emit. 


What is EPA’s proposed timeline for existing gas power plants?

Under the current proposal, existing gas plants would not need to be in full compliance until 2035. This timeline does not match our clean energy targets—that’s why we’re calling on EPA to require all covered existing gas plants to be in full compliance with the rule by 2030 instead. Moreover, we’re also calling on EPA to expand the scope of existing gas plants covered by the rule. It’s important to not only move these timelines up but also make sure power plants of all different sizes are fully regulated.  


What EPA needs to do to create a timeline that matches our climate needs 

EPA has a critical opportunity to move these compliance timelines up before the rule is finalized. The current timelines allow plants to emit carbon under business as usual for too long, despite having spewed pollution into our air for decades.

But the good news is that there’s still time to tell EPA to strengthen these timelines before the comment period closes on August 8, 2023. We suggest the following recommendations to EPA to speed up their compliance timelines at the pace necessary to hit our climate goals: 

  • Existing coal: EPA should require full compliance by 2030 for more existing coal plants. If EPA creates carve-outs for retiring coal plants, the deadline to retire should be no later than 2035, not 2040.
  • New gas: EPA should require full compliance for new gas plants starting immediately, instead of 2035.
  • Existing gas: EPA should require full compliance for existing gas plants starting in 2030, not 2035.
Construction of a wind farm in California. Construction vehicles and equipment seen at the base of the hills where the windmills are.

Construction of a wind farm in California. IRA funding for decarbonization offers yet another reason for EPA to move these timelines up. (© 2022 CaptSpaulding/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Moreover, utilities and states have more resources than ever before to decarbonize thanks to the robust clean energy programs in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). There’s the USDA’s New ERA program that provides funding to rural electric cooperatives for clean energy, the Investment Tax Credits (ITC) and Production Tax Credits (PTC) that provide financial incentives to build out more renewable projects, the direct pay option, that allows tax-exempt and government entities to take advantage of those credits for the first time, and so many others. These incredible IRA funding opportunities make decarbonization even more accessible for states and utilities and offer yet another reason for EPA to move these timelines up. 

The fossil industry, unsurprisingly, is pushing back to keep business as usual. They want to stall for as long as possible, so they can continue polluting without accountability to our environment and communities. They are doing everything in their power right now to convince EPA that these timelines are too strict and that they need more time. 

While the comment period is still open, we need your help to tell EPA that the final rule can and should have expedited timelines. Help us fight back against the gas industry lobby to ensure we have as strong a final rule as possible that will make enormous progress toward our decarbonization goals, address climate change, and save lives.