Steps the EPA Must Take to Reduce Global Warming Emissions

Our Health is at Stake

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public’s health. The EPA is moving forward with its responsibility to set standards to reduce global warming emissions because the agency found that these emissions clearly do harm our health.

Where We Are Today

The EPA has started to move forward to reduce dangerous pollutants from cars and trucks, power plants, and other large industrial polluters, despite ongoing attempts by politicians and industry groups to block the EPA from doing its job.

As of 2011, the EPA requires large industrial facilities — such as power plants and oil refineries — to apply for and secure state permits to release global warming emissions. New facilities that will emit more than 100,000 tons of global warming emissions per year and plants making modifications that will increase their emissions by 75,000 tons or more per year will need to obtain permits to begin operation. Existing facilities that emit at least 100,000 tons of global warming emissions per year will need to obtain operating permits. Together, these facilities represent 70 percent of all United States global warming emissions from stationary sources.

The permits for new facilities will mandate that these facilities use the “best available control technology” to limit their global warming emissions. EPA guidelines for best available technology include using energy efficiency and certain types of biomass for these facilities—measures that will also cut fuel costs.

Other notable recent efforts include the establishment of new global warming emissions and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks, but the EPA must do more to protect public health from the dangers of global warming emissions.

What the EPA Must Do to Reduce Global Warming Emissions

Establish Carbon Standards for New and Existing Power Plants

Power plants are the single largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., according to the latest data from the EPA, and reducing those emissions through carbon standards is one of the most important steps the EPA can take.

In summer 2013, President Barack Obama released a climate action plan in which he committed the EPA to deliver on these standards in an expeditious manner. Draft standards to limit carbon emissions from future power plants were issued on September 20, 2013. Draft standards for existing power plants will be issued by June 1, 2014, and finalized by June 1, 2015, according to a Presidential memorandum.

On September 20, 2013, the EPA reissued draft carbon standards for new power plants, revising an original draft issued on April 13, 2012. According to these standards, new large natural gas-fired power plants must limit their emissions to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. Smaller natural gas units must meet a standard of 1,100 punds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. New coal-fired power plants must meet a standard of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

Coal-fired power plants also have the option of meetig a standard of 1,000-1,050 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour via a provision that would allow them to average their emissions over a period of seven years. This would potentially allow a plant to start out with high emissions and then install carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology later to reduce their emissions. 

The next step is setting standards for existing power plants, which can reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants and help ensure a transition to cleaner energy sources such as renewable energy, natural gas, and energy efficiency.

Establish Standards for Oil Refineries and Other Large Industrial Sources of Emissions

The EPA has also committed to setting carbon standards for new and existing oil refineries, the next largest stationary source of U.S. global warming emissions after power plants.

The EPA should also consider additional standards for cement kilns, fertilizer plants, crude oil and natural gas production, and possibly steel plants and lead smelters, which are also large sources of global warming emissions.

Reduce Emissions from Natural Gas and Oil Wells

On April 17, 2012, the EPA issued regulations to limit air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry, including from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells. These standards, which will go into effect on January 1, 2015, are primarily directed at reducing VOCs from these wells through a process known as a “reduced emission completion” or “green completion” that also leads to capture of fugitive methane emissions. Methane is a potent global warming gas so this rule has significant climate benefits, in addition to other public health benefits. 

Fully Implement Other Actions to Address Health Threats from Coal-Fired Power Plants

On December 21, 2011, the EPA released a long-overdue final Mercury and Air Toxics standard that would control hazardous air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants that can lead to cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks, and even premature death.

On July 6, 2011, the EPA issued the Cross State Air Pollution Rule to cut power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which cause numerous health problems including breathing difficulties, aggravation of asthma, and even premature death. This standard is currently subject to legal challenge and the Supreme Court is due to rule on the matter by June 2014. In the interim, the EPA is issuing guidance for states to meet the older Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).

Additionally, the EPA is moving forward to regulate disposal and management of coal ash , a toxic by-product of coal-fired power plants that can cause ground and surface water contamination. It has also issued standards for power plant cooling water intake structures to help reduce their harmful environmental impacts.

Urgency and Importance of Swift Action

We are already feeling the effects of a warming world, and these effects will only get worse if we fail to swiftly and significantly reduce global warming emissions. It is critically important that the EPA's carbon standards be implemented without delay, and that they are based on the best available science.

UCS is working hard to ensure that the carbon standard for new power plants is finalized, and that the Obama administration issues a detailed timeline to craft standards for existing power plants and oil refineries as soon as possible.

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