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New EPA rules cut carbon, mercury and other pollution from coal and gas power plants

The coal-fired Homer City Generating Station.
Reid Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
The coal-fired Homer City Generating Station, which closed in 2023.

The EPA finalized a suite of pollution rules for natural gas and coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Thursday.

The new rules include limits on climate-altering carbon dioxide from coal and new natural gas power plants.

They also include three updates to existing rules that impact coal plants. These include limits on mercury emissions, toxic wastewater discharges, and coal ash storage.

The most sweeping of the rules are the CO2 limits on coal and new natural gas plants. They require carbon capture, improved efficiency or co-firing with “low-emitting” fuels at these plants.

Coal plants that commit to cease operating by 2032 face no emissions reduction requirements; those that plan on ending production by 2039 face some emissions reduction requirements by 2030.

Those that plan to operate past 2039 must capture 90% of their CO2 by 2032. New gas plants will also be required to capture 90 percent of their carbon by 2032. The rules include lower requirements for plants that run less than 40% of the time.

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EPA administrator Michael Regan said climate change was “pushing our planet to the brink” and that the rules were needed to protect against its future effects.

“We’ve seen how severe storms and flooding on the East Coast can cause catastrophic damage to thousands of homes and businesses, ravaging local economies and leaving business owners and community members shattered and confused,” he said. “We must work side by side to tackle the greatest environmental challenges of our time.”

Regan said the new rules would prevent 1200 premature deaths from air pollution by 2035, eliminate 1.4 billion tons of carbon pollution, and net $370 billion in health benefits.

Fossil fuels like coal and natural gas are the main drivers for climate change, and cutting their use is key, scientists say, to stave off catastrophic climate effects.

Even without the new rules, Pennsylvania’s power plants are already slated to phase out coal by 2028. But the rules would likely suppress demand in other states.

Reaction to the rules

The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, in a statement, called the rules “a haphazard and dangerous threat” to grid security.

“The Administration suggests the plan can be implemented ‘without disrupting the delivery of reliable electricity.’ In fact, the plan will destroy the ability to produce grid-saving baseload power across the country at a time when the same Administration has pushed the electrification of our economy, mandating electric vehicles and appliances,” said Coal Alliance executive director Rachel Gleason, in a statement.

Likewise, the American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania’s executive director, Stephanie Catarino Wissman, warned the rule “fails to consider grid reliability and the need for new natural gas plants to help ensure reliable power for consumers. The focus should be on bolstering our energy supply and modernizing permitting processes to ensure the grid has sufficient generation to meet the growing demand.”

In an email, a spokesman for PJM, the grid operator for Pennsylvania and other Mid-Atlantic states, said the organization was “still going through the details of the rule” and did not yet have comment on their impact on grid reliability.

The EPA said the rules could be implemented without impacting the reliability or affordability of electricity.

“Despite what you will hear and what they will say, we can do it all while ensuring the power sector can provide affordable, reliable electricity to consumers for the long term,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan, in announcing the rules.

The agency said it reached that conclusion based on analysis from the Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and peer-reviewed research.

Environmental groups praised the rules.

“I think this is a historic regulation when it comes to limiting climate-disrupting pollution from the power sector,” said Tom Schuster, clean energy program director at the Sierra Club Pennsylvania. “It’s also great news for folks who are dealing with the health consequences of air and water pollution from power plants.”

Coal ash and mercury emissions

Schuster said the coal ash rules would be important in Pennsylvania. The updated rule applies some of the same monitoring and cleanup rules to coal ash ponds at retired coal plants that previously were only required of active plants. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic, which can leach into groundwater.

That’s going to be really important for Pennsylvania because we have a ton of retired power plants that have ash ponds that are actively leaking,” Schuster said.

The updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule increases some monitoring requirements for coal-fired power plants and eliminates some loopholes for certain coal plants. The EPA estimates it will result in a reduction of 1000 pounds of emitted mercury, a neurotoxin, by 2028.

In addition, the EPA updated the Effluent Limitations Guidelines on coal plant wastewater discharges. The agency estimates that it will prevent more than 660 million pounds of pollution per year from entering the country’s rivers and streams, the EPA estimates. Plants that stop burning coal by 2034 are exempt from some aspects of the updated rule.

Republican state attorneys could sue to block the rules from going into effect. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, a Republican, has already vowed to stop the rules from being implemented.

EPA said it was working on a separate rule for existing natural gas plants in the U.S. These existing plants account for two-thirds of the CO2 emissions from power plants in Pennsylvania and 45 percent nationwide.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

Reid R. Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front. His work has taken him as far away as Texas and Louisiana to report on the petrochemical industry and as close to home as Greene County, Pennsylvania to cover the shale gas boom. His award-winning work has also aired on NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. Reid is currently contributing to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY covering the Commonwealth's energy economy. Email: