Several Biden administration officials notified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the agency’s aggressive regulation to massively reduce power plant emissions has serious practical and legal flaws, according to internal documents obtained by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

The EPA’s proposal effectively stipulates that existing coal-fired power plants must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040, and that new and existing natural gas power plants also make significant cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions depending on their size and situational use by mandating expensive and generally unproven technologies like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or blended hydrogen. During the White House interagency review process, several commenters highlighted serious logistical and technological flaws with the proposal, according to documents and communications obtained by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

The Clean Air Act gives the EPA the ability to regulate certain pollutants from stationary sources, like power plants, provided that the agency does so using the “best system of emission reduction” that is “adequately demonstrated,” according to the statute’s text. The EPA’s proposal contends that CCS and hydrogen blending are “adequately demonstrated” and ready to drive a major shift in America’s natural gas power generation fleet, but comments on interagency review documents indicate that there is not a consensus on the efficiency or reliability of these technologies within the wider Biden administration.

Critics have described the EPA’s proposal as an unrealistic de facto end run to achieve nearly identical outcomes to those envisioned in the Obama administration’s “Clean Power Plan” that the Supreme Court shot down in 2022. The Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. EPA that the EPA exceeded its mandate as an administrative agency in trying to promulgate the “Clean Power Plan” and overturned the regulation some eight years after the Obama EPA unveiled it in 2014.

Some of the comments raised serious questions about the regulation’s plan to have natural gas power plants, which provided about 40% of America’s utility-scale power generation in 2022, rely on blended hydrogen. Analysis from the Center for the American Experiment projects that the proposal, if finalized and implemented, would almost certainly prompt rolling blackouts in the large swaths of the American heartland serviced by the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO).

“Hydrogen combustion has not been adequately demonstrated nation-wide for utility scale power generation,” one commenter wrote in internal review documents. A large spike in hydrogen combustion would result in “significant increases” in nitrogen oxide emissions, which “would offset some of the benefits” of reduced carbon dioxide emissions the policy is designed to effectuate, the same commenter noted.

“There are issues regarding the integrity of hydrogen supply and whether a consistent and reliable marketplace for hydrogen will emerge,” that commenter wrote. Additionally, the commenter raised issue with the EPA’s proposed timelines for power plants to come into compliance with certain provisions of the regulation and pointed out that blended hydrogen is currently energy inefficient.

The commenters’ concerns were not confined exclusively to blended hydrogen. Some officials and experts also made clear that they do not believe CCS technology and related infrastructure is close to ready to meet the EPA’s goals for the technology’s installation at natural gas generation facilities.

One commenter observed that the agency has only approved two permits for underground carbon dioxide sequestration wells to date, and that the entire permitting process can take up to six years.

“Currently there are 31 permit applications pending approval,” the commenter wrote. “This long lead time for permit approval is one limiting factor in the availability of storage capacity, making any regulation requiring CCS infeasible until areas for storage and pipelines to transport the captured carbon can be developed at an industrial scale.”

Another comment pointed out that CCS consumes “20-25% of the electricity generated by the unit, resulting in less power available to the grid” and “will adversely impact available reserve margins, exacerbating grid reliability projections by diverting up to one-fifth of the energy output to power” CCS-related equipment. The commenter further described CCS as “prohibitively expensive” despite cushion provided by subsidies allotted by the Inflation Reduction Act — President Joe Biden’s signature climate bill — and added that “it has not been adequately demonstrated” as the best means of reducing emissions as required by law.

While the EPA is looking to reshape the country’s power generation system by imposing new technological requirements that some within the administration do not believe to be ready to serve their ambitious purpose, the agency and other arms of the Biden administration are pushing electric vehicles and appliances, for example, that will ostensibly drive a significant increase in electricity demand.

“Documents uncovered show the EPA and this administration is willfully disregarding the cost and legality of its proposed emissions rule which would jeopardize America’s power grid, raise energy costs, and cement Green New Deal priorities,” House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer said in a statement. “The American people expect rigorous congressional oversight, and the Committee will continue to work to ensure the EPA and other Administration officials are being held accountable.”

The EPA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Nick Pope on February 22, 2024

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