The US EPA’s Carbon Capture Gambit

Landmark limits on power plant pollution may call the industry’s bluff

The Stanton Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant, is seen in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Stanton Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant, is seen in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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The Biden administration’s proposal to slash planet-warming pollution from electric power plants is a landmark development in the climate story. Announced today by the Environmental Protection Agency, Biden’s plan aims to “effectively eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s electricity sector by 2040,” The New York Times reported. Certain to face legal challenges and political attacks from fossil fuel companies, electric utilities, and Republican officials, TIME observed that the plan’s success “hinges on carbon capture,” a controversial, costly technology that journalists need to scrutinize carefully. This plan represents a core element of Biden’s attempt to reduce US climate pollution in line with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Electric power plants currently produce roughly one-quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions. Under the proposed rules, all coal-fired plants and the most frequently used gas-fired plants would have to cut or capture 90% of their CO2 emissions by 2038 or be shut down, the Associated Press reported. That amounts to a transformative shift for the US economy, where, together, coal and gas currently supply 85% of electricity.

The new EPA rules do not mandate how an individual power plant must slash emissions. Rather, the rules set a cap on the amount of pollution each plant can emit and leave it up to the plant operators to decide how to meet that requirement. Since emissions do not have to fall immediately, operators could choose among various options. They could retire an aging plant early and replace its electricity by building solar, wind, or other zero-carbon facilities. Or they could continue operating existing plants but install carbon capture and storage, a technology that captures CO2 before it leaves a smokestack, compresses it into liquid, and stores it where it supposedly doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

But carbon capture and storage (CCS) has a very checkered record on both cost and climate grounds. Dozens of CCS projects have been launched around the world in the past decade. Most have either trapped less than half of the CO2 predicted or been shut down due to the high economic cost, The Washington Post has reported, citing analyses by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. What’s more, CCS projects that have gone forward have mainly been used to extract more oil and gas from underground — the captured CO2 is injected into existing wells to force more oil or gas to the surface.

At the insistence of fossil fuel friendly politicians, including West Virginia senator and coal investor Joe Manchin, the Inflation Reduction Act included billions of dollars in subsidies for CCS. Proponents of the technology point out that federal support has previously helped other nascent technologies, including wind and solar, to overcome early challenges. Whether that will happen with CCS remains to be seen. Fossil fuel industry sources have long said that CCS is an essential decarbonization tool for achieving carbon neutrality while continuing to burn fossil fuels. The new EPA rules, in effect, call the industry’s bluff, Lissa Lynch of the Natural Resources Defense Council told TIME; power plant operators will face a choice: Make CCS work, however much it costs, or shut down their oil and gas plants.

This is a developing story with high stakes for the US economy and US climate commitments. CCNow looks forward to how our colleagues throughout the news media will cover it, and as always we are ready to help.

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Noteworthy Stories

COP28. The climate minister of the United Arab Emirates, host of the COP28 climate summit, said countries should agree to phase out emissions from fossil fuels, rather than the production of oil, gas, and coal, at this December’s meeting. The oil-rich nation backs the use of carbon capture and storage technologies, a likely sticking point at COP28, to keep producing fossil fuels. By Valerie Volcovici and Leah Douglas at Reuters…

Methane ≠ “clean energy.” Tennessee passed a new law that legally defines natural gas, made up mostly of the potent greenhouse gas methane, as “clean energy” following the passage of a similar law in Ohio. It’s a story that so far has received little press coverage. By Arielle Samuelson and Emily Atkin at Heated…

Blistering. A number of countries in East and Southeast Asia hit record-high temperatures this week, with Vietnam reporting a high of 44.1 degrees Celsius, writes Lauren Leffer, at Gizmodo. A record-breaking heatwave that struck the western Mediterranean last month would have been almost impossible without climate change, a new attribution study finds. By Chelsea Harvey at Scientific American…

Mind-blowing. Methane leaks from fossil fuel sites in Turkmenistan were responsible for more global carbon emissions in 2022 than the entire United Kingdom, according to satellite data. Going after such leaks “is the fastest and cheapest way to slash methane emissions, and therefore global heating,” writes Damian Carrington at the Guardian…

  • The Global Investigative Journalism Network has updated its reporting guide on methane emissions with five new satellite data sources to identify greenhouse gases. Check it out.

Every breath. In addition to stabilizing our climate, oceans help supply the oxygen for literally “every breath we take,” notes British Commonwealth secretary general Patricia Scotland. Under India’s leadership as this year’s president of the G20, Scotland hopes the world’s biggest economies will “promote sustainable practices and tackle pollution and overfishing.” By Manka Behl at the Times of India…

Via YouTube

What would it take for the US to reach its goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030? That’s the question at the center of “Chasing Carbon Zero,” a new PBS NOVA documentary. Host Miles O’Brien travels the country to look at the technologies in play and speak with the scientists and engineers “who are convinced we can achieve carbon zero in time to avoid the biggest impacts of climate change.”

Resources and Events

Natural carbon storage. Climate Central has a new report out about the climate power of trees in urban settings, including data on their estimated annual benefits in 242 US cities, and experts for comment. Check it out. 

Extreme weather. The New York Times has launched “extreme weather maps” that track the risk of tornadoes, hail, high winds, and excessive rain in the US. Have a look.

Flooding. SciLine is holding a media briefing on coastal flooding in the US. May 15. RSVP.

COP28. The World Resources Institute will hold a webinar, “The global stocktake at COP28: why getting it right matters for the future of climate action.” May 18. RSVP.

Climate solutions. Climate Central and Project Drawdown will discuss the latest data, resources, and frameworks for journalists covering climate across beats, with a focus on solutions. May 18. RSVP.

Jobs, Etc.

Jobs. CBS Mornings is hiring a weather producer. The Augusta Chronicle/ is recruiting a climate change/environment reporter. Central Florida public media stations WMFE and WMFV are seeking an environmental reporter. Carbon Brief is looking for a summer intern in London. Capital + Main is looking for a freelancer to write about the role of banks in funding fossil fuel operations as part of a new national reporting project. Contact Marcus Baram at for more information.

Grants. Poynter is offering grants of up to $15,000 each to three newsrooms or freelancers to support reporting projects on climate change in at least one of six Great Lakes states. Learn more.

Awards. The deadline for the Society of Environmental Journalists annual awards is May 15.