Nov 23, 2015 - 4:45pm

If Sen. Manchin is Right, EPA’s Clean Power Plan Could Collapse

Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is no fan of the Obama administration’s campaign to drive coal out of America’s energy mix. When he ran for Senate in 2010, Manchin shot a hole through carbon cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.

Since being elected, Manchin has continued defending coal as an abundant and affordable energy source and fighting against EPA’s regulatory overreach. Last week, he co-sponsored a Congressional Review Act resolution of disapproval for EPA’s carbon regulations on new power plants.

“Never before has the Federal Government forced an industry to do something that is technologically impossible--until now,” he told Senators on November 17, 2015.

Manchin was referring to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology that pulls out carbon dioxide before it can go into the atmosphere.

Canada’s CBC News reports that the first commercial coal-fired power plant to use CCS technology, the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, has only been running at 40% of its capacity and has “serious design issues.” Just a few months earlier, EPA cited the Boundary Dam project (page 64513) as evidence that CCS was commercially proven in support of its requirement that CCS be installed on any new coal plant built in the United States.

“These recent revelations prove that CCS is still technically unproven and still potentially damaging in a power plant application. Therefore, it is foolish for this administration to require it now for new U.S. coal plants,” Manchin said. He went on to detail the project’s troubles:

The reports also identify the CCS system of the demonstration plant as being a key issue in the delays for getting the plant up and running. After 1 year of operation, the project was forced to replace certain important features at a cost of $60 million. There have always been nearly $23 million in nonperformance penalties and lost revenues.

The plant's management company, which is SaskPower, has acknowledged these recent reports and are now pushing back the project's operational date to the end of 2016, but there are no guarantees this will prove true either.

SaskPower is also claiming that the project will need at least a year of stable operation to prove the technical operation and the economics of the project, which would aid in determining commercial viability.

SaskPower has announced it will not be able to make an informed decision about carbon capture sequestration until 2018. Yet the EPA here in the United States of America is demanding that all U.S. coal-fired generation industry implement this technology now.

Skepticism about the current commercial viability of CCS technology is also found inside President Obama’s White House. Its 2014 National Climate Assessment states, "It is difficult to forecast success in this regard for technologies such as CCS that are still in early phases of development."

It goes on to note [emphasis mine]:

CCS facilities for electric power plants are currently operating at pilot scale, and a commercial scale demonstration project is under construction. Although the potential opportunities are large, many uncertainties remain, including cost, demonstration at scale, environmental impacts, and what constitutes a safe, long-term geologic repository for sequestering carbon dioxide.

This doesn’t sound like a feasible technology to me—at least not yet.

Sen. Manchin’s criticism is important for two reasons. First, as Sen. Machin points out, the U.S. economy will depend on coal for decades to come, and the aging fleet of coal-fired power plants (average age, 45 years) will need to be replaced.

“[R]egulations that prohibit building new coal-fired power plants can soon become a serious issue for the Nation's electricity grid and the reliability we all depend upon,” Sen. Manchin warned.

Under EPA’s tough carbon regulations for new power plants, we won’t be able to use technology we know works. Facilities like the Southwestern Electric Power Company’s ultra supercritical coal-fired power plant in Arkansas that produces 320,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide annually wouldn’t pass muster. As a result, EPA has effectively made the cleanest coal plant design in the country illegal to build and operate.

The second reason involves how the Clean Air Act is structured, and the fact the Obama administration is bypassing Congress and regulating carbon emissions purely through the Regulatory State.

Under the Clean Air Act, before EPA can regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants—the “Carbon Pollution Standards” rule--it must regulate those same emissions from new power plants.

CCS is the foundation for a “greenhouse of cards,” as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Marlow Lewis explains:

Under §111 of Clean Air Act, EPA may not promulgate emission performance standards for existing sources unless it first (or concurrently) promulgates performance standards for new sources.

So if Congress or courts overturn the “Carbon Pollution Standards” rule, that would also upend the CPP, which in turn would gut the U.S. INDC, scuttling COP21.

If CCS isn’t commercially viable—and judging from the Boundary Dam experience it isn’t yet—the Clean Power Plan goes down too.

Now, in all likelihood, because Paris talks will start soon on November 30 and the cautious pace of federal court proceedings, the Obama administration shouldn’t expect to be embarrassed by having a federal judge bring down its intricate climate agreement structure.

Nevertheless, should the carbon rule for new power plants go down in the future. The administration’s house of cards will collapse. The Clean Power Plan will fall and take the administration’s international promises with it. 

About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.