EPA finally wakes up with stiff new climate rules: ‘They’ve hit full throttle’

A slew of anti-pollution, from toxic water to planet-heating emissions has been issued by an agency belatedly flexing its muscles

The sleeping giant of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stirred.

In the past month, an avalanche of anti-pollution rules, targeting everything from toxic drinking water to planet-heating gases in the atmosphere, have been issued by the agency. Belatedly, the sizable weight of the US federal government is being thrown at longstanding environmental crises, including the climate emergency.On Thursday, the EPA’s month of frenzied activity was crowned by the toughest ever limits upon carbon pollution from America’s power sector, with large, existing coal and gas plants told they must slash their emissions by 90% or face being shut down.

The measure will, the EPA says, wipe out more than 600m tons of carbon emissions over the next two decades, about double what the entire UK emits each year. But even this wasn’t the biggest pollution reduction announced in recent weeks.

In April, new emissions standards for cars and trucks will eliminate an expected 9bn tons of CO2 by the mid-point of the century, while separate rules issued late last year aim to slash hydrofluorocarbons, planet-heating gases used widely in refrigeration and air conditioning, by 4.6bn tons in the same timeframe. Methane, another highly potent greenhouse gas, will be curtailed by 810m tons over the next decade in another EPA edict.

In just a few short months the EPA, diminished and demoralized under Donald Trump, has flexed its regulatory muscles to the extent that 15bn tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to about three times the US’s carbon pollution, or nearly half of the entire world’s annual fossil fuel emissions – are set to be prevented, transforming the power basis of Americans’ cars and homes in the process.

“They have really hit full throttle. I mean, some of these things have been in train for decades,” said Thomas Burke, who was senior science adviser at the EPA during Barack Obama’s administration. “These rules are essential if the US is going to address the climate crisis and so the past month has been very encouraging. The agency seems to be on the rebound.”

If last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), with its $370bn in clean energy subsidies and enticements for electric car buyers, was the carrot to reducing emissions, the EPA now appears to be bringing a hefty stick.

The IRA should help reduce US emissions by about 40% this decade but the cut needs to be deeper, up to half of 2005 levels, to give the world a chance of avoiding catastrophic heatwaves, wildfires, drought and other climate calamities. The new rules suddenly put America, after years of delay and political rancor, tantalizingly within reach of this.“It’s clear we’ve reached a pivotal point in human history and it’s on all of us to act right now to protect our future,” said Michael Regan, the administrator of the EPA, in a speech last week at the University of Maryland. The venue was chosen in a nod to the young, climate-concerned voters Joe Biden hopes to court in next year’s presidential election, and who have been dismayed by Biden’s acquiescence to large-scale oil and gas drilling.

“Folks, this is our future we are talking about, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real climate action,” Regan added. “Failure is not an option, indifference is not an option, inaction is not an option.”

The various climate rules have involved grueling preparation from an agency still considered understaffed from the Trump years and now face a gamut of challenges. The right-leaning US supreme court limited the EPA’s options for cutting power plant emissions in a ruling last year and further legal challenges from Republican-led states are inevitable.

“This rule appears to utterly fly in the face of the rule of law,” said Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia, which triumphed in last year’s case. “We expect that we would once again prevail in court against this out-of-control agency.”

Even if the regulations survive the whim of the courts, they could still be overturned by a future president or reversed by Congress using a review mechanism that will only be negated if the rules are finalized and enacted by next summer, a tight timeline.

“They do need to go further, faster, but I think the EPA recognizes the urgency on all fronts,” said Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen, an environmental campaign group. “Carbon pollution in the power sector is currently unregulated which is a really big hole in tackling the climate crisis. It’s good to see President Biden leaning in on this, even in the face of a Maga majority on the supreme court.”

It’s not just climate the EPA has acted upon in recent months. There are new standards for chemical plants, such as those that blight the so-called “Cancer Alley” of the US, from emitting cancer-causing toxins such as benzene, ethylene oxide and vinyl chloride. New rules curbing mercury, arsenic and lead from industrial facilities have been released, as have tighter limits on emissions of soot and the first ever regulations targeting the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) in drinking water.

“This action all seems new, it seems different,” said Burke. “Some of the things have made me think, ‘Wow, we were working on that 10 years ago. It’s a shame we lost a decade on it.’”

For those inside the agency, the breakneck pace has been enervating. “It’s definitely a race against time,” said one senior EPA official, who asked not to be named. “The clock is ticking. It is a sprint through a marathon and it is exhausting.”

The Biden administration will now have to walk the tightrope between opponents who claim the rules will cause the lights to blink off across America – Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat senator and coal baron, said he will block EPA nominees for following a “radical climate agenda” that risks prematurely shuttering coal plants – and ostensibly supportive environmental groups that have complained the power plant rule doesn’t go far enough and has carve-outs for newer and intermittent polluting plants.

A key point of contention is the rule’s indirect embrace of carbon capture technology. In order to hew to the supreme court’s verdict from last year, the EPA is requiring emissions cuts that can be reasonably made on-site by individual power plants, rather than to reshape the entire electricity grid towards solar and wind power.

These cuts could be made by scrubbing carbon from smokestacks, switching to cleaner fuels such as hydrogen or capturing the emissions and burying them underground, an expensive option that currently isn’t being used by any coal or gas plant in the US.

The EPA has now essentially called the bluff of fossil fuel interests that have previously talked up the prospects of carbon capture, but both the industry and environmentalists have now expressed skepticism, with many coal plants expected to shut rather than spend millions of dollars on new equipment and pipelines to bury emissions.

Biden also still has to grapple with accusations that his administration is fatally undermining its own progress by continuing to approve oil and gas drilling leases, at a rate faster than even under Trump, despite his promises to end drilling on public lands. The controversial decision in March to allow the vast Willow oil project in Alaska – a development that former vice-president Al Gore called “recklessly irresponsible” – will result in nearly half of the emissions the power plant rule will avoid over a 30-year period.

“We know the work to confront the climate crisis doesn’t stop at strong carbon pollution standards,” said Ben Jealous, the executive director of the Sierra Club.

“The continued use or expansion of fossil power plants is incompatible with a livable future. Simply put, we must not merely limit the use of fossil fuel electricity – we must end it entirely.”






cover photo:The aftermath of the train crash in East Palestine, Ohio. Photograph: Michael Swensen/Getty Images