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Can Carbon Capture and Green Hydrogen Rise to the Climate Challenge?
The viability of Biden’s decarbonization plan could face legal challenges, potentially impeding its progress in combating climate change. Fossil fuel companies and their representatives may contest the plan in court, arguing that the unproven nature of the technologies involved poses a legal vulnerability. A similar initiative by the Obama administration in 2015 encountered legal obstacles and was eventually repealed.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently unveiled a new proposal aimed at establishing carbon emissions standards for power plants. This proposal would compel many plants to either adopt carbon capture equipment (CCS) capable of extracting CO2 from smokestack emissions or utilize ultra-low-emission hydrogen generated by electrolyzing water with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
If successful, this plan would position the United States on a trajectory to achieve net-zero emissions from the power sector by 2035, a sector currently responsible for a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, as per the White House’s projections.
However, industry representatives are strongly opposing the proposal.
Michelle Bloodworth, the president and CEO of America’s Power, which represents utilities relying on coal, raised significant legal concerns about the proposal. She questioned whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the jurisdiction to mandate the use of technologies that are not economically or technically viable for widespread implementation.
Jeff Holmstead, a lobbyist at Bracewell LLC in Houston and former head of the EPA’s air office during the Bush administration, expressed skepticism about the reliance on carbon capture. He pointed out that there is currently no operational gas-fired power plant in the United States, or anywhere else to his knowledge, that utilizes carbon capture and storage (CCS) to control emissions. Holmstead believes this fact alone could pose challenges for the EPA to convince the courts that CCS has been adequately proven.
EPA officials, along with certain environmental groups, argue that the rule was carefully crafted to withstand legal scrutiny. They assert that the proposal focuses on available technologies that can be directly implemented at power plants, and that Congress has affirmed the agency’s authority to establish carbon standards based on technology.
Moreover, proponents argue that the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the central climate legislation of the Biden administration, provides significant financial support through new tax credits and incentives. These provisions make carbon capture and clean hydrogen economically viable.
Michael Burger, the executive director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, noted that the economic aspect of scaling up these technologies has historically been a major hurdle. However, he believes that the economics have changed, making their widespread implementation more feasible.
Major utility companies like Southern Company and CenterPoint Energy Inc declined to comment on the feasibility of these technologies, while the Edison Electric Institute, representing the U.S. utility industry, stated that it is currently evaluating the plan.
In its extensive 651-page proposal, the EPA presents its argument for considering carbon capture and storage (CCS) as “adequately demonstrated.” The agency cites examples such as SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project in Canada, which achieved a 90% CO2 capture rate from an existing coal steam generating unit. NET Power, a Texas-based project, is also mentioned for its plans to capture nearly all emissions from gas-fired power starting in 2026.
However, notable CCS projects have faced difficulties. Petra Nova, a $1 billion project in Texas aimed at harnessing CO2 emissions from a coal plant, encountered chronic mechanical issues and consistently fell short of its targets before being shut down in 2020. The project’s owners, JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration of Japan, are planning to restart it in June.
Currently, the active CCS projects in the U.S. are relatively small in scale and can only store around half a percent of national emissions, according to the Global CCS Institute.
Jay Duffy, litigation director of the Clean Air Task Force, argues that the limited usage of the technology should not be a hindrance. He cites historical precedent, such as the EPA’s implementation of air pollution controls in the 1970s, which were based on the availability of scrubbers that were not yet widely adopted. Duffy emphasizes that the Clean Air Act allows for standards based on available pollution controls, even if they are not widely used at the time.
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