E.P.A. to Exempt Existing Gas Plants From Tough New Rules, for Now.


Facing intense opposition from major industries and some Democrats, the Biden administration on Thursday said it would delay the most contentious element of its plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency will exempt existing gas-fired plants, at least for now, from a new regulation that would require power plants in the United States to capture their carbon dioxide emissions before 2040.

The delay comes as the administration, in a concession to automakers and labor unions, is also expected to relax elements of another major rule to limit carbon pollution from automobiles. Those two groups are an important part of President Biden’s Democratic constituency as he seeks re-election in November.

The weakening of the Biden administration’s two most ambitious climate rules would call into question the ability of the United States to meet the president’s goal of cutting United States emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade. The target was aimed at limiting global warming to about 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientist say it will be increasingly difficult for humans to adapt to a hotter planet.

“Slower progress on these marquee rules means they’re going to have to find new places to get emissions reductions soon,” said John Larsen, a partner at Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan energy research firm.

The power plant rule initially called for steep emissions cuts from plants that burn coal or gas, which together produce the bulk of electricity in the United States. To comply, plants would have to capture their greenhouse gas emissions using technologies that are currently very expensive and not widely in use.

Now the E.P.A. says the regulation, which is expected to be finalized this spring, will apply only to existing coal-burning plants and gas-fired plants that are built in the future.

The agency plans to write a separate regulation to address climate pollution and other emissions from gas-fired plants currently in operation, a delay certain to stretch past the November election.

“This stronger, more durable approach will achieve greater emissions reductions than the current proposal,” Michael Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said in a statement.

The changes comes as Mr. Biden faces intense headwinds as he runs for re-election while trying to confront climate change. He is aiming to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and gasoline powered vehicles, which are two of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses, while retaining crucial electoral support in major manufacturing states.

Power plants generate about a quarter of the planet-warming pollution produced by the United States. Regulating electric utilities is a major part of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda, which includes a goal of eliminating emissions from the power sector by 2035.

Several environmental activists and Democratic lawmakers criticized the move. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, called the E.P.A. decision “inexplicable.”

“Making a rule that applies only to coal, which is dying out on its own, and to new gas power plants that are not yet built is not how we are going to reach climate safety,” Mr. Whitehouse said.

“Time is not on our side,” he said, adding that a warming planet won’t wait for what he called the agency’s “lethargic rule-making pace.”

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, would not say whether it supported a more limited rule. But Emily Sanford Fisher, the group’s executive vice president of clean energy, said in a statement that the E.P.A. had “acknowledged our concerns” about gas plants.

“We understand that the role of natural gas continues to evolve, and it is important that regulations for existing natural gas protect customer reliability and affordability and support our industry’s ongoing clean energy transition,” she said.

Imposing rules on how American homes and businesses are powered has never been easy.

President Barack Obama tried to cut carbon pollution from power plants by engineering a transition to renewable power, but his 2015 Clean Power Plan was put on hold by the Supreme Court and later rolled back by President Donald J. Trump.

In 2022 the Supreme Court restrained the way E.P.A. could regulate emissions from power plants, ruling the government could not force a wholesale transition away from coal-fired electricity.

When the Biden administration first proposed new limits on pollution from power plants, the E.P.A. hewed closely to the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court. Still, the resistance was immediate.

Electric utility groups argued that the rules for existing gas plants would be particularly hard to meet; the country’s biggest manufacturing lobby warned it could have “devastating consequences”; and a small but significant number of swing state Democrats said they also feared the requirements would result in electric rate increases.

“Depending on implementation, municipal electric utilities serving small, rural communities in my district may have no choice but to pass along the costs of compliance to their ratepayers,” said Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio.

Ms. Kaptur was among a group of House and Senate Democrats who wrote to the E.P.A. in January to express concern about the proposed regulation. “We share the administration’s goal of responsibly reducing carbon emissions,” they wrote. But, they added “we cannot ask our constituents to bear the cost of that risk in the form of significantly higher utility bills and unreliable electricity.”

Senator Jon Tester, one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election in November who also opposed the power plant rule, said he wanted a methodical transition to cleaner energy. “I’m all about climate change, and we have to figure out ways to that,” Mr. Tester said on Wednesday. “In the meantime, we can’t shut off the spigot.”

The Democratic critics represent a small slice of the party. But some fear that the segment will grow as more than a half-dozen regulations cracking down on everything from carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and power plants to handling of coal ash, chemicals, endangered species and environmental permits are finalized this spring.

“I do worry about this,” said Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who frequently promotes fossil fuels, said in a recent interview.

“In my area, you’ve got generations of people who have worked for energy companies and you’ve got families that depend on and work in this industry,” Mr. Cuellar said. He said he supported cutting greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change but added, “I think there should be incentives instead of mandating.”

Under the new plan disclosed on Thursday, the E.P.A. said it intended to finalize its regulation to require existing coal plants to install technology that will capture 90 percent of their carbon emissions by 2035. Alternatively, coal plants could convert their operations so that they are burning mostly hydrogen by 2038. Plants that cannot meet the new standards would be forced to retire.

The E.P.A. did not say when it intended to issue a separate rule for gas plants. Mr. Regan said the agency was writing a regulation that will also address other harmful pollutants emitted from gas plants like formaldehyde and nitrous oxide.

Delaying the final regulation past this spring runs the risk of it being overturned by the next Congress. The 1996 Congressional Review Act permits lawmakers to undo regulations with a simple majority within the first 60 days of the finalization of a new rule. Republicans have already pledged to repeal rules written by the Biden administration rules if they win control of the White House and Congress in November.

Some climate activists said they supported the E.P.A.’s decision. A group of environmental justice leaders led by Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, issued a letter in support of the delay because they were glad to learn it meant the agency would also consider blocking nitrous oxide and other pollutants.

“Many of our communities experience the immediate impacts of living near the existing infrastructure of coal plants, gas plants, pipelines, and extraction and refining facilities,” Dr. Bullard and others wrote.

Others noted that an analysis conducted by Evergreen, another environmental advocacy group, said that only 5.2 percent of gas-fired turbines, representing 22 percent of the nation’s gas power capacity, would be covered by the rule.

“There’s no good way to regulate fossil gas plants without regulating all of them, ,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental group.

Coral Davenport contributed reporting.


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