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In Texas speech, Biden’s EPA chief puts power plants on notice for pollution

Previewing a suite of new fossil fuel rules, Michael Regan said more needs to be done to clean up the air and water around U.S. power plants.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston on March 10. (F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg News)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Thursday put the U.S. power sector on notice, outlining how the Biden administration plans to cut air and water pollution spewing from the nation’s electricity plants.

Speaking to a gathering of energy executives in Houston, President Biden’s top environmental officer outlined an array of regulatory actions in the coming months to tighten rules around toxic mercury, smog-forming compounds and other pollutants as the White House searches for ways to accelerate the nation’s shift to cleaner electricity.

While noting the significant drop in air pollution from power plants and other sources since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, Regan said more work must be done to clean up the unhealthy air that often hits poor and minority neighborhoods the hardest.

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“While we continue to see important leadership you’re demonstrating to reduce pollution, power plants remain the largest stationary sources of harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide,” Regan said at CERAWeek, an annual energy conference, noting that an estimated 8,000 people die prematurely every year from such pollution.

“Folks, I’ve thought long and hard about this,” he continued. “I know it’s complex. But we think there’s a way to do it and it protects public health and continues to give you the certainty you all need to expedite a clean energy future.”

Regan’s remarks in Texas come as the Biden administration struggles to achieve its goal of running the U.S. power grid entirely on clean energy by 2035, and moving away from greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.

But that aspiration has run into resistance from the Supreme Court, Republicans and even members of Biden’s own party in Congress. While some of the EPA’s moves have been expected because of court orders and other deadlines, Regan said his agency will take an “integrated and coordinated approach” that creates “regulatory certainty for long-term investments.”

The agency on Friday will unveil a proposal to compel power plants and factories to cut the emissions of smog-forming pollution that gets blown across state lines, Regan said. The move is aimed at improving air quality in downwind states, such as those in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, that have no control over the pollution coming from the industrial Midwest.

Upwind states are often reluctant to cut cross-border pollution, said John Walke, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air director, “because it requires them to crack down on homegrown plants.”

The EPA is also considering tightening requirements on mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. As his administration steps up efforts to write new air rules, Biden this week picked Joseph Goffman, a seasoned climate expert, to lead the EPA’s air office.

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Regan also said the agency will propose a rule aimed at stopping toxic contaminants in pits where waste from coal-burning is stored from leaching into drinking water and the environment.

“This is long overdue,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the law firm Altman Newman, which represents environmental groups.

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a lobbying group for investor-owned electric companies, said utilities support reducing pollution but don’t want to compromise “on the reliability and the affordability that our customers value.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with Administrator Regan on EPA’s efforts to take a coordinated and holistic approach to policymaking,” he added.

Even with no regulation directly on climate-warming emissions on the books, the business of burning coal for electricity has collapsed over the past decade as cheaper gas, wind and solar projects come online. Since 2009, more than 260 coal plants switched to gas or ceased operations entirely, according to the Sierra Club.

Later this spring, Regan said, the EPA will publish a paper outlining ways gas-fired power plants can reduce their greenhouse gases. While those suggestions will not be legally binding, “it does frame the public dialogue on approaches to reduce climate pollution,” he said.

Despite the coal-plant closures, the power sector is still the nation’s second-biggest source of climate-warming emissions, with most of the carbon pollution coming out of the smokestacks of coal-fired plants.

So far, Biden has struggled to pass a major climate bill in Congress. Democratic leaders dropped a proposal prodding utilities to use solar, wind and other renewable energy after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote in the Senate, came out in opposition.

At the Supreme Court, conservative justices expressed skepticism that the EPA can go forward with sweeping climate regulations without more explicit direction from Congress.

The high court is weighing a challenge from GOP-led states and the coal-mining industry against the agency’s authority to regulate power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. With three justices picked by President Donald Trump, the current court leans even further to the right than the one that stopped President Barack Obama’s key effort to cut carbon pollution from the power sector, known as the Clean Power Plan. Trump’s plan to loosen regulations on power plant emissions, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, was also later shot down, by a federal court.

Biden’s team is in the middle of crafting carbon regulations for new and existing power plants that can withstand Supreme Court scrutiny. Regan expects to unveil a plan for that later this year, he said in Houston.

The world has little time to wait. A major report from U.N. climate scientists published last month concluded that nations have a “brief and rapidly closing window” to cut emissions and “secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

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