Big Steps from Biden to Curb Power Plant Pollution

Long-awaited rules will benefit people and wildlife, yet more is needed

I am a huge fan of refrigerator magnets. They proudly hold my kids’ artwork in temporary exhibition as well as this week’s grocery list. These magnets are also a walk down memory lane. After all, I collect them nearly every time I visit a new place. Sometimes the magnets take me to distant memories from my career as well – such as the time I first worked to raise awareness about power plant mercury pollution more than 20 years ago. A circular, red magnet from that era still alerts: “Limit your exposure to mercury,” intended to help consumers make safer fish choices. At that time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had yet to impose a single rule limiting mercury air emissions from power plants, so consumers were on their own.

Fast forward to today, and I’m glad to say we are in much better hands. With President Biden’s EPA, mercury pollution and climate-altering emissions will be slashed from power plants, among other pollutants. New carbon dioxide and mercury rules are part of a comprehensive approach by the EPA to address pollution in all its forms while reducing planet-warming emissions from fossil fuel-based power plants.

A bird with tan and brown feathers, a long beak, and blue legs stands on a shore.
Whimbrels are under dire threat from climate change. The new Carbon Power Plant Rule will help tackle climate change and improve their chances of survival.

Carbon Power Plant Rule

A rule published on April 25, 2024 will limit carbon dioxide emissions from all coal-fired power plants and most new natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S. The rule actually reestablishes and improves upon power sector greenhouse gas limits that were initiated under President Obama and torn asunder under President Trump.

Existing coal plants that plan to remain online will have to install carbon capture technology that controls 90 percent of their carbon pollution. Newly built gas plants will have to do the same. This technology, and underground carbon storage, has been used for decades but has not been applied at a large scale across energy-generating stations. A lot is riding on their success.

In the Obama era, the EPA tried a different approach to reducing this carbon pollution, but the Supreme Court limited their scope, resulting ultimately in this focus on carbon capture and storage, as well as other means to reduce fossil fuel-use at the plants.

Fortunately, not only is carbon capture expected to avoid release of meaningful amounts of climate-warming pollution, but it can also cut exposure to conventional air pollutants too. The chemicals and particulates emitted by power plants are major contributors to premature deaths, respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and other debilitating conditions.

By 2047, the rule is expected to prevent the equivalent of nearly one full year’s worth of power sector emissions in the U.S. This should have significant benefits for wildlife as well. Climate change represents the most significant long-term threat to the survival of America’s wildlife, and carbon dioxide emissions are the greatest contributor. 

While the National Wildlife Federation applauds the progress represented by this carbon rule, the agency’s work is not yet done. The rule excludes more than 2,000 existing natural gas power plants that are responsible for 35 percent of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions.

We welcome the EPA’s intention to propose an even stronger, more robust rule for current natural gas plants in the near future, including not only carbon dioxide but other harmful air pollution.

A small bird with tan feathers, a white chest, and yellow patches surrounding its eyes perches on a tree branch.
When mercury pollution forms toxic methylmercury and enters the saltmarsh sparrow’s bloodstream, the survival of their nests and their reproductive success is put into jeopardy. Improved regulations on mercury pollution will protect people and wildlife like the saltmarsh sparrow from health impacts.

Mercury Pollution Standards

Also published on April 25, the EPA issued a final rule strengthening and updating standards drastically limiting mercury and other toxic air pollution (such as nickel, arsenic, and lead) from coal-fired power plants. The National Wildlife Federation celebrates this rule.

Mercury is found in many sources, most notably for human and wildlife health when burning fossil fuels. After it enters the atmosphere, it can rain back down on local environments, enter our waterways, and be carried off far from the source. Mercury pollution makes its way into streams, rivers, and lakes, and then travels up through organisms in the food chain to contaminate the food we eat, becoming a serious concern for all those who enjoy the outdoors – especially those who fish or like to eat certain predatory fish.

The new rule reflects the most significant improvements and updates to the standards since the EPA first issued them in 2012. These regulations work. Between 2008 and 2020, mercury emissions from U.S. power plants decreased by 90 percent. The rule also requires plants to install continuous monitoring equipment, including in disadvantaged communities.

These two rules are just part of the holistic approach the Biden Administration is taking to safeguard our climate and clean our air. I will still keep my mercury refrigerator magnet along with the rest of my collection, and I’ll still be mindful of pollution hazards to our health and our climate. But I’m truly relieved to see our country headed in a cleaner direction.