Fossil fuel power plant owners are facing increased accountability for their air and water pollution, including from a new round of environmental and public health protections that are being rolled out by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These new protections will include updates to power plant standards on carbon emissions, mercury pollution, and toxic coal ash pollution, just to name a few.
While these new rules will benefit the climate, the environment, and communities all around the country—particularly those near the power plants—fossil fuel companies, and intransigent power and utility companies, stand to lose by being less able to evade accountability for all of the damages caused by their operations. Their disinformation apparatus is therefore starting to spin up in response, pushing out false and misleading narratives that aim to water down the pollution measures as much as possible.
We’ve heard these lazily disingenuous narratives before. After the EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan in 2014, for example, fossil fuel interests and their backers tried to argue that the proposal’s 2030 emission-reduction targets were completely unrealistic, and that the country would see astronomically high costs and blackouts due to the rule. But in reality the proposed emission targets were achieved 11 years early in 2019—without the plan ever even taking effect.
With all that set as the backdrop, there are three basic facts about fossil fuel power plants that everybody should understand before the full barrage of disinformation begins in response to the EPA proposals.
1. Fossil-fueled power is expensive
Even if you put health and environmental costs aside—which you shouldn’t, and I’ll get to those in a second—fossil-fueled power just doesn’t make economic sense given more affordable energy sources.
For natural gas-fired power, the costs of maintaining outdated and inefficient infrastructure–let alone building new infrastructure–like power plants, production wells, and pipelines add up quickly and largely get passed along to consumers in the form of higher energy bills. Further, the going price of gas can be volatile and generally tracks very closely with US wholesale electricity prices, since the country grew so over-reliant on gas power plants throughout the 2010s. This means that when the price of gas spikes–as it did in 2022 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and inevitably will again in the future–the price of electricity for consumers also eventually spikes in response.
These dynamics related to gas, along with sharp declines in the cost of renewable technologies, have rendered large-scale solar and onshore wind the most affordable electricity sources in the country, and that’s not even taking clean energy incentives from federal nor state governments into account, which weaken the economic case for gas-fired power even further.
For coal-fired power, the economic case has been bleak for a long time now, which has brought US coal-fired generation down to less than half of its 2010 level. Last year, for the first time ever, US renewable electricity generation surpassed coal-fired electricity generation. A recent analysis also showed that every single coal plant in the country–except for one newer facility in Wyoming–is more expensive just to continue running compared to building completely new large-scale solar or onshore wind.
And again, none of these data points take into account the insidious health and environmental costs associated with fossil-fueled power, which are astronomical.
Gas plants proposed as of the close of 2021 were estimated to result in up to $74 billion in health costs over their lifetime, and that’s just from the burning of gas at the power plant, ignoring all of the polluting upstream impacts from drilling and transporting gas. Research has shown that the country’s remaining coal plants are responsible for 3,800 premature deaths per year, based on 2019 data. It was even worse when there was more coal-fired generation in 2014, when the plants were responsible for an estimated 91 percent of the 16,000 premature deaths resulting from electricity generation.
The health costs of these pollution sources are also inequitably distributed, since power plants tend to be sited in communities that have lower incomes and education levels. Communities where predominantly people of color and people who don’t speak English as a first language live also have a disproportionate amount of power plants sited near them. The 2014-focused study referenced above found that Black Americans were most affected by the toxic power plant emissions. Studies have also shown that even when emissions are reduced, the benefits have accrued disproportionately to white and non-environmental justice communities.
And to zoom out a bit, burning fossil fuels is the primary contributor to global climate change, which is driving and exacerbating the once-rare extreme weather events that are impacting people across every part of the country—and across the world. In 2022 alone, there were 18 US climate and weather-related disasters–many of them worsened by climate change–that cost more than a billion dollars each, killing at least 474 people and causing $165 billion in damages.
Just some things to keep in mind when you hear fossil fuel interests and their backers desperately trying to shift the “high costs” argument away from where it truly lies.
2. Fossil-fueled power is not as reliable as once thought
Fossil fuel-fired power plants are proving to be vulnerable during extreme weather events, which is precisely when we need reliable electricity the most. Though the same types of vulnerabilities we’re seeing today have been exposed for quite some time now, they have gotten worse, caused increasing levels of devastation, and are forcing grid operators and policymakers to reevaluate the capability of these plants to help keep the lights on and other critical infrastructure running during dire circumstances.
Gas plants, in particular, have failed miserably to perform during cold weather events due to vulnerabilities along the entire gas supply chain, from the production wells all the way to the power plants. And since the country has become so over-reliant on gas to produce electricity, the impacts of a widespread gas system failure can be particularly devastating, as was the case in February 2021 when Winter Storm Uri tragically led to the deaths of 246 people in Texas, most due to hypothermia. While the gas system was not the only factor at play, the event brought more than 1,000 generating units in the central United States offline or to reduced capacity, nearly 60 percent of which were gas-fired units.
The country’s aging coal power fleet has also failed to perform as expected during recent cold snaps. Just around Christmas time in 2022, coal-fired power was second only to gas-fired power in terms of plant failures during Winter Storm Elliott, according to preliminary data from two large grid operators covering the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic.
In the case of the Mid-Atlantic grid operator, PJM Interconnection, coal and gas plants together accounted for 91 percent of the megawatt-hours (MWh) that failed to get delivered to the grid. For coal, the leading cause of the plant failures by far was issues with their boilers, which are critical to their ability to generate electricity. For gas, the leading cause of plant outages was fuel supply issues.
It’s not just cold weather either. Thermal power plants, which use steam in their electricity generation process, are also vulnerable during heat waves and droughts, both of which are expected to be exacerbated in a warming world.
Most US fossil fuel generating capacity utilizes steam to generate electricity, which requires water sources that can become less available during drought conditions. Even if there is water available, heat waves can cause the water sources to be too hot, which can reduce the plant’s efficiency or even cause unsafe operating conditions because the plant can’t be adequately cooled. If there isn’t enough water or the incoming water is too hot, plants can be put to reduced capacity or be forced completely offline, increasing the risk of blackouts.
So, the next time you hear fossil fuel interests talking about grid reliability, know that they’re trying to distract you from the host of vulnerabilities of fossil-fueled power and its shortcomings in reliably keeping the lights on.
3. Rapid, deep cuts to fossil fuel use are necessary to address the climate crisis
The power sector is second only to the transportation sector in terms of total US greenhouse gas emissions, making up about a quarter of overall emissions. This means if the country is going to meaningfully address the climate crisis, it needs to rapidly shift to clean resources for generating electricity.
Coal is the most destructive fossil fuel in terms of its climate impact. Modeling has shown that coal power should be phased out entirely by 2030 if the United States is going to live up to its Paris Agreement targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As I mentioned above, coal power is on the decline, but the decline isn’t currently fast enough, with too many plants slated to stay online. And remember, almost none of the country’s coal plants are economic anymore, and further, some of them aren’t even compliant with current air quality standards set by the EPA years ago.
While burning gas at a power plant isn’t as carbon intensive as burning coal, the fuel’s main component is methane, which is more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at warming the planet over a 20-year time frame. Methane leaks are rampant along the entire gas supply chain, and research repeatedly shows that the problem is worse than previously thought. One recent study found methane from the US oil and gas industry to be 70 percent higher than EPA estimates. When those leaks are factored in, they undermine–and sometimes even outpace–the difference in smokestack emissions.
As long as the gas-fired power system is around, methane leaks upstream of the power plants are likely to remain a feature of that system. State and federal methane protections will drive some of the investments necessary for reducing leaks, but examples to date show challenges with enforcing these measures, and the oil and gas industry just wants to use its own measures of what it considers to be adequate methane controls. In any case, gas is still a dirty fossil fuel that is burned in the power-production process, warming the planet and polluting the air.
The UCS and NREL modeling referenced above show little to no need for new gas plants in the reliable, decarbonized grid of the future. The models also show those plants operating very infrequently in the future, and that further, alternatives to these gas plants exist and more alternatives may be coming. So, the further buildout of the gas-fired power fleet would not only be completely incompatible with addressing climate change, it would also be a huge waste of ratepayer and investor money because that fossil-fueled electricity would mostly have nowhere to go.
Strongest possible EPA standards are needed
After the EPA inevitably gets pushback from fossil fuel companies and backward-thinking power and utility companies on its proposals, the agency must thoroughly interrogate those claims and press forward with the best available science. It must not respond by watering the protections down based on industry disinformation.
EPA has already finalized a rule that aims to address interstate ozone pollution, dubbed the Good Neighbor Plan. Though the new measure is ultimately strong, the agency now expects the final rule to keep thousands of megawatts of polluting fossil fuel plants online for longer compared to its original proposal, after receiving industry pushback.
Industry players will paint a “sky-is-falling” picture about new environmental protections regardless of the substance within the rules, just like they did with the Clean Power Plan and virtually every other regulatory proposal that required them to protect public health at the expense of their shareholders.
But strong environmental protections from the EPA, and on fossil fuel power plants in particular, are essential for safeguarding public health and the climate, particularly for communities that have been burdened the most by both toxic air pollution and climate change and are seeking environmental justice.
The best available science on the environment and public health should inform these critical decisions that affect the health and well-being of people and the planet, not false claims and disinformation.
The next time you hear fossil fuel interests or their backers making dubious claims about protections from fossil fuel power plant pollution, keep in mind these key facts that stand in their way—and that they desperately want you to forget.