Report: Power Plant Emissions Lowered in 2022
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released its annual data on power plant emissions, reportedly reflecting a long-standing trend of decreasing annual emissions due to changes in the mix of fuels used in electricity generation.
The 2022 report, which covers the lower 48 states, showed electricity demand increased by 2% for these power plants and by 3% for all electric generation in the first 11 months of 2022.
“Communities that live near power plants deserve the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as everyone else,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
“Our work is far from done, but the data prove we’re on the right path. We’ll continue to work with state, tribal and local leaders, in addition to major players in the private sector, to build on our progress and protect public health.”
According to the release, compared to 2021, the latest data showed a 4% decrease in nitrogen oxide emissions, a 10% decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions, a 1% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions and a 3% decrease in mercury emissions.
Ozone season nitrogen oxide emissions also decreased by 10%. The EPA notes that this number decreased by 21% in states covered by the current Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which requires additional nitrogen oxide emission reductions to facilitate attainment of the 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
US 2022 power plant emissions fell on switch from coal to gas -EPA https://t.co/EgsutSO1rU— Energy News Beat (@EnergyNewsBeat) February 25, 2023
Overall, annual emissions from power plants of sulfur dioxide fell by 93% and nitrogen oxide emissions fell by 87% between 1990 and 2022. In 2022, sources in both the CSAPR annual program and the Acid Rain Program (ARP) together emitted 0.85 million tons of sulfur dioxide, a reduction of 11 million tons from 1995 levels.
Additionally, last year, sources in these programs together emitted 0.75 million tons of nitrogen oxide, a 5.1-million-ton reduction from 1995 levels. While complying with programs to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, power plants reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 22% between 1995 and 2022.
The EPA reports that these long-term declines in the power sector help reduce air pollution and public health.
Emissions data collected through the ARP, the CSAPR programs and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are posted online and accessible to the public on the EPA’s Power Plant Emission Trends page.
Recent Air Quality Standard Proposal
In January, the EPA announced a proposal to strengthen key national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for fine particles, or soot, to protect communities from pollution.
These particles, also known as PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs and can result in serious health effects that include asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death. According to the EPA, these particles may be emitted directly from sources such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.
Other particles reportedly form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles.
The EPA reports that it will specifically take comment on strengthening the primary health-based annual PM2.5 standard from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between nine and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, reflecting the latest health data and scientific evidence.
Additionally, the Agency is also taking comments on the full range (between eight and 11 micrograms per cubic meter) included in the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s (CASAC) latest report.
Based on thousands of new scientific studies demonstrating the dangers of soot exposure from its last review of the PM NAAQS in 2012, the EPA explains that strengthening the primary annual PM2.5 standard is expected to address disparities and would result in significant public health benefits.
If finalized, the Agency anticipates that a strengthened primary annual PM2.5 standard at a level of nine micrograms per cubic meter, the lower end of the proposed range, would:
The EPA is also reportedly proposing to revise other aspects related to the PM standards, such as monitoring requirements and the Air Quality Index. They are proposing to retain the primary 24-hour PM2.5 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, while taking comment on revising this level to as low as 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
The Agency planned to accept public comment for 60 days after the proposal was published in the Federal Register.
Supreme Court EPA Authority Ruling
While the EPA continues to propose changes to improve air quality, at the end of June 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In a 6-3 vote, the court said that Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants in a bid to transition away from coal to renewable energy sources.
The case, known as West Virginia v. the EPA, stems from a 2015 EPA directive to coal power plants to either reduce production or subsidize alternate forms of energy, but was never implemented due to being immediately challenged in court.
The Clean Power Plan, originating from the Obama administration, was temporarily blocked in 2016 by the Supreme Court, then repealed in 2019 by the Trump administration, arguing that the plan exceeds the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and that the act only allowed the agency to set standards on the physical premises of a power plant.
The Trump administration then proposed a policy called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule to regulate emissions only from existing coal-fired steam plants. However, that revision was challenged by states and environmental groups before ultimately being struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The majority opinion on the ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision was also reportedly the first time a majority opinion cited the “major questions doctrine” to justify a ruling, which holds that with issues of major national significance, a regulatory agency must have clear statutory authorization from Congress to take certain actions and not rely on its general agency authority.
Some considered the ruling a huge blow against President Joe Biden’s climate crisis plan, which includes cutting the nation’s GHG emissions in half by the end of the decade, as well as achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. According to reports at the time, power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output, with the U.S. the second largest producer of GHG in the world.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia vs. EPA is another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards. While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” said Biden in a statement following the ruling.
“I have directed my legal team to work with the Department of Justice and affected agencies to review this decision carefully and find ways that we can, under federal law, continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change.”