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

How the EPA Can and Must Reduce Pollution from the Power Sector

The comprehensive, multi pollutant strategy the EPA must use to reduce pollution from the power sector by 2035.

U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan

Coal and gas-fired power plants are America’s #1 industrial source of deadly air pollution—killing tens of thousands of people and contributing to hundreds of thousands of illnesses every year. Those impacts are disproportionately felt by communities of color who are more likely to breathe polluted air than their white counterparts, even when factors like region and income are taken into account. As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels to power America's energy grid, millions of Americans will suffer from exposure to toxic pollution linked to early death and a wide range of debilitating illnesses.

This year the Biden administration can and must make headway on their critical campaign promise to achieve 100% clean electricity nationwide by 2035. Meeting this goal will reduce pollution that harms millions of Americans every year, while simultaneously helping our nation meet its international commitments to address climate change. 

Currently, the U.S. gets approximately 40% of its electricity from carbon-free sources. To drive the rapid sectoral transformation that is required to reach 80% clean power by 2030 and 100% by 2035, the administration must deploy a range of policy tools, through both legislation and executive action. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is uniquely positioned to play a key leadership role in reducing pollution throughout the electricity sector.  

Key dates for action by the EPA

A Common-Sense Strategy

Last month Michael Regan, the EPA Administrator, announced a plan to clean up the power sector by coordinating multiple regulations that help protect the public and our environment from pollution. His visionary plan has the agency thinking holistically about how they can use all the tools at their disposal to deliver maximum benefit at a minimal cost. This innovative yet common-sense approach will involve updating and strengthening multiple public health safeguards to decrease deadly pollution from power plants. We applaud Administrator Regan and agency staff who are hard at work on this important strategy. They must move quickly and robustly to implement this critical effort. 

In contrast, the previous administration put industry profits above people’s health, directing EPA to roll back or stall a number of regulations that would have reduced pollution. This means that the U.S. is currently operating under many outdated regulations which no longer reflect the current pollution levels or the most up-to-date science. It’s clear the Biden  Administration has their work cut out for them. Thankfully, they are stepping up to the challenge by planning to tackle multiple pollutants at once with a coordinated regulatory strategy. 

Protecting Public Health: Phase One

The first phase of this coordinated strategy is already underway, as the EPA moves to update three important regulations governing air pollutants, and one regulation limiting water contamination. We know that stronger standards are needed to regulate fossil fuel power plants—as they are a major source of air and water pollution, and many of these safeguards are now woefully outdated. 

Air Pollution Regulation 1: Mercury and Toxic Air Pollution (MATS)

In February 2022, the EPA began a regulatory process to restore and strengthen the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS), which limit the emissions of mercury, arsenic, and other cancer-causing chemicals. The EPA proposed reinstating the legal finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” for the agency to regulate toxic emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EPA took public comments on this proposal and must now move forward to strengthen and finalize the standard-setting limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic air pollution power plants are allowed to dump into our air. The administration has said that the EPA will propose an updated MATS standard in June 2022, and will aim to finalize it by the end of the year. This is a crucial effort. The agency must move quickly to stick to this timeframe. 

Air Pollution Regulation 2: Soot (Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standard)

Additionally, under the CAA, the EPA has the authority to establish limits for the amount of various types of pollution allowed in our air, referred to as “criteria pollutants.” These standards are known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), and EPA uses these to limit amounts of the six criteria pollutants found in our air. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards are the core of how the CAA has helped the US clean up its air over the past 50 years.

One of the six criteria pollutants is particulate matter, also known as soot, which is produced by burning fossil fuels. Breathing in soot is terrible for our health–these tiny particles get lodged deep in the lungs, leading to a number of serious health issues including; exacerbating heart and lung diseases, causing cancer, and is responsible for thousands of premature deaths. Thankfully, the EPA plans to update the standard for soot this year, with a proposed rulemaking set to begin in August. This rule has not been updated in a decade, so it’s critical that the new rule sets a strong standard based on current science, technology and emission rates. 

"This updated Good Neighbor Rule will protect additional downwind states from harmful air pollution that travels across state lines by requiring power plants and other emitters to limit their pollution. All Americans deserve to breathe clean air regardless of which state they live in."

Air Pollution Regulation 3: The Good Neighbor Rule

The CAA's "good neighbor" provision, also known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), enables EPA to establish safeguards on pollution emitted in upwind states that blows into downwind states, to ensure all states have a fair chance to meet the NAAQS and ensure their residents have clean air to breathe. Smog is produced from ground-level ozone, a lung irritant that harms the developing lungs of children and worsens existing respiratory conditions. 

The NAAQS rule which sets limits on ozone pollution was last updated in 2015. Now the EPA is proposing a new Good Neighbor Rule to keep states in compliance with that 2015 ozone standard. This updated Good Neighbor Rule will protect additional downwind states from harmful air pollution that travels across state lines by requiring power plants and other emitters to limit their pollution. All Americans deserve to breathe clean air regardless of which state they live in. You can raise your voice and tell the EPA how important this new rule is by making a public comment by June 6th. 

Tell the EPA: Strengthen the “Good Neighbor” Rule

Directly Addressing Carbon Pollution

Tackling Carbon Pollution 

Administrator Regan has also committed to using the agency’s authority to directly tackle carbon pollution from the power sector as part of its comprehensive strategy. These safeguards must address carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants, using authority under sections 111 (b) and (d) of the CAA. These rules must address pollution from both coal and fossil gas plants. To inform this effort, EPA recently published a white paper exploring various technologies that industry can use to limit pollution from new gas plants. This is an important first step in crafting standards to directly address carbon pollution from these sources, and we are eager to see EPA move forward quickly with promulgating these standards. EPA is accepting comments on this white paper until June 6th and we encourage advocates to weigh in in support of agency action to dramatically reduce carbon pollution from all power plants. 

More Action Needed

We are eager to see the administration continue making progress on several additional safeguards, as well. Clear forward movement on each of these standards is needed to ensure the administration is able to deliver on its comprehensive pollution agenda. 

Smog - National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone

As outlined above, the CAA gives the EPA the authority to set national levels for key pollutants found in our atmosphere—and these standards must be updated regularly to reflect changing science and conditions. The EPA can and must update the national standard for ozone, in addition to the progress being made on the soot standard outlined above. Ozone is dangerous to breathe in and even short-term exposure to elevated levels has been linked to serious respiratory health effects, including increased asthma medication use by children and respirator-related hospital admissions for vulnerable populations. 

This critical public health standard limiting ozone pollution has not been updated since 2015. In 2020, the Trump Administration declined to update the standard, opting instead to “retain” the old standard. And while it is encouraging that the Biden administration has announced it will review the Trump administration’s decision, we urge the EPA to move quickly to update all necessary scientific and technical reviews to enable them to update and strengthen this standard well before the end of Biden’s first term. 

Closing Loopholes During Startups, Shutdowns, and Malfunctions

Early on, the EPA realized that excessive emissions are produced during the startup, shutdown, and malfunction of power plants, impacting the ability of states to comply with air quality standards. The EPA under the Obama administration attempted to close this loophole by instituting the Startup, Shutdown, and Malfunction (SSM) rule, which considered excess emissions during these periods to be a violation of state emissions limits. The SSM rule makes power plants use up-to-date emissions control technologies and maintain their operations in good repair to avoid unnecessary emissions. 

But in practice, states have continued to pollute beyond their emissions limits because of exemptions to the SSM rule, one of which is called the emergency affirmative defense provision. This “emergency” provision allows states to avoid compliance with the SSM rule as long as they claim an emergency happened—which they do, all too frequently. Thankfully the EPA recognizes that states have abused this loophole, and it plans to remove the emergency provision from regulations. This will ensure that power plants don't use outdated loopholes to burden communities with the pollution that they can prevent. But even without the emergency provision, further action is needed to strengthen the SSM rule to ensure that all state compliance plans address excessive emissions associated with SSM.

Coal Ash

Coal ash, or “coal combustion residuals” (CCR), is created as waste from coal-fired power plants. One of the largest forms of industrial waste, coal ash is often stored in massive, toxic “ponds” adjacent to coal-fired power plants. In response to immense public pressure from the communities living near and dealing with the impacts of these toxic waste dumps, the Obama administration finalized rules in 2015 governing coal ash ponds, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Those rules were challenged in court for not adequately protecting public health and the environment (and then weakened by the Trump administration's EPA). The Biden administration has moved swiftly to interpret and enforce parts of the 2015 rules requiring the coal industry to clean up coal ash waste leaking into groundwater and drinking water sources. To further protect communities from the clear hazards to public health from toxic coal ash, the Biden EPA must continue holding the coal industry accountable for the cleanup and safe closure of all coal ash ponds.  

Regional Haze

In addition to being a health hazard, air pollution caused by power plants also reduces the quality of our outdoor experiences due to haze formation. Haze is formed when pollution from power plants reacts with the sun. This impairs visibility and takes away the natural beauty of our national parks and wilderness areas. That's why the EPA has been working with the National Park Service and other agencies to make sure that the 156 national parks and wilderness areas are not impacted by regional haze. 

States with national parks and protected wilderness areas are required to make plans to reduce power plant pollution that causes haze. But when these plans were due last year, 34 states failed to submit a plan. The last regional haze plans were due in 2008, which means the majority of states are operating under plans that are over a decade old and likely don't take into account today's emission reduction technologies. The EPA must immediately hold these states accountable, and in doing so the public will benefit from greater emissions reductions from power plants. Our colleagues at the Sierra Club and other organizations recently filed suit to compel them to do just that, and we hope that the agency will act expeditiously to ensure these plans are updated. 

We Must Power Towards 100% Power for All of Us

In sum, we are pleased to see EPA moving ahead with this innovative, common-sense strategy to coordinate the release of multiple safeguards, maximizing the benefits they will deliver to communities, our environment, and businesses. We know that EPA is doing a lot with a little (they’re still woefully under-staffed thanks to Trump-era cuts to their budget), and we applaud their efforts. To live up to President Biden’s commitments to environmental justice and clean energy, save millions of Americans from needless suffering, and prevent thousands of premature deaths, the agency can and must keep up the good work, moving even faster to deliver on Administrator Regan’s vision and keep powering towards 100% clean power for all of us. 

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