The Great Green Lie: CCS Today Is Not Like Scrubbers in the 1970s (Part I)
High-ranking EPA officials, prominent congressional Democrats, and environmental special interests are peddling a great green lie regarding the Carbon Pollution Standard, the Obama administration’s boldest front yet in its war on coal.
These policymakers and environmental special interests would have the public believe that the Carbon Pollution Standard, which requires carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), is akin to EPA’s 1970s-era requirements that all new coal-fired power plants install “scrubbers” to control sulfur dioxide. What was good and reasonable then is so now, they reason.
Their analogy, however, is false. As set forth below, the history of the two technologies demonstrates that scrubbers, when mandated by EPA, were indeed commercially viable, whereas CCS is not now so. In fact, the comparison between scrubbers and CCS is even worse than wrong for proponents of the Carbon Pollution Standard, because it actually undermines their legal case for the regulation.
Who Is Making the Great Green Lie?
By EPA’s own admission, the Carbon Pollution Standard will have a negligible impact on climate change, due to the fact that the preponderance of present and future greenhouse gas emissions originate in other countries. Given the rule’s inconsequential impact, its proponents need talking points. Thus, in an effort to make the Carbon Pollution Standard seem reasonable, its supporters compare it to a previous mandate for scrubbers.
For example, NRDC’s David Doniger recently blogged that,
Congress intended clean air standards to push pollution control technology forward, not to stop at what is already routine. Industry tried to block sulfur dioxide “scrubbers” 40 years ago with the same arguments, but the courts have repeatedly upheld EPA standards that push technology forward.
And on September 18, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy compared CCS to scrubbers in response to a questioning by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Illinois) during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power (Energy and Commerce Committee). The exchange is reprinted below:
Rep. Shimkus: Administrator McCarthy, has EPA ever established a new source performance standard for an emission source on the basis of technology that has not been commercially proven by operation at a commercial — at commercial scale?
Administrator McCarthy: We have in the past, for example, our use of scrubbers was seen as an innovative but available … [Transcript from Congressional Quarterly, subscription required]
The false CCS-scrubbers analogy was explored at length during an exchange between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverley Hills) and acting EPA Office of Air and Radiation chief Janet McCabe, in the latter’s testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on November 14. Their dialogue is excerpted below:
Rep. Waxman: Ms. McCabe, could you give us some examples of how Clean Air Act standards have driven air pollutions control technologies?
EPA OAR Chief McCabe: Certainly Mr. Waxman, there are a couple of very appropriate examples that affect the power sector particularly. The first is the use of scrubbers. So when those New Source Performance Standards which is the same really we’re talking about here, were developed to require the use of scrubbers they were not in widespread use so were only a couple in fact out there. And since that time, they have now become mainstream standard equipment on any new power plants. [Transcript from Congressional Quarterly, subscription required]
Rep. Waxman then elaborated favorably on the comparison.
As these examples indicate, NRDC, EPA’s two highest ranking air quality officials, and influential Rep. Henry Waxman are all arguing that the Carbon Pollution Standard is unexceptional, because they claim that CCS technology is as mature today as was sulfur scrubber technology in the 1970s. In the following section, I demonstrate that they are wrong.
1971 Sulfur Dioxide Standard: Wet Scrubbers
On December 23, 1971, EPA promulgated the first nation-wide sulfur dioxide emissions limits for new coal-fired plants (36 FR 24876; EPA published a detailed explanation of the rule on March 21, 1972 (37 FR 5767). The standard, set at 1.2 pounds per million B.T.U. heat input, was based on use of “wet” flue gas desulfurization, a.k.a. wet scrubbers.
There are many variants of wet scrubber technology, all of them based on chemistry. Sulfur dioxide is reactive. So if you filter the exhaust from coal-combustion through a reagent, the sulfur dioxide will precipitate out and can be captured. The technological principle was first established in 1932 at the Batterson Power Station in England, where it was as simple as spraying the region’s uniquely alkaline waters across the stream of exhaust from the electricity generating unit.
EPA’s 1971 sulfur dioxide standard—and also the Carbon Pollution Standard—were published pursuant to Clean Air Act §111 New Source Performance Standards. Under §111, Congress limited EPA’s choice of standards to those based on technology that has been “adequately demonstrated.” Courts have interpreted “adequately demonstrated” to mean “commercially viable.” [For a detailed legal analysis of the Carbon Pollution Standard, see this paper.]
By the end of 1971, wet scrubbers were clearly commercialized. There were, at the time, operational systems at 3 power plants, representing 695 megawatts. Construction was underway on slightly more than 3,300 megawatts at 15 power plants (see Table 1—Sulfur Dioxide Removal Systems at U.S. Steam-Electric Plants, 37 FR 5768). Notably, none of these pending projects received EPA subsidies. Clearly, wet scrubber technology was ready for prime time.
By contrast, CCS technology today is operational at zero power plants and under construction at one, heavily-subsidized 540 megawatt power plant (more about that below). With respect to the crucial question of commercial viability, there is simply no comparison between wet scrubbers in December 1971 and CCS today. However, as is explained in the next section, the current state of CCS technology is comparable to a different type of sulfur scrubber technology considered by EPA in revised sulfur dioxide emissions standards for new coal-fired power plants, which were promulgated in 1979.
 EPA readily concedes that the Carbon Pollution Standard would have no impact on the climate. Consider the following exchange between Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy during a September 18 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, in which she concedes that none of EPA’s climate regulations will have a discernible impact on the climate.
Rep. Pompeo: And on your website you have 26 indicators use for tracking climate change. They identify various impacts of climate change, so you would believe that the purpose of these rules is the impact of those 26 indicators, right? So, you put a good greenhouse gas rule in place, you’ll get a good outcome on at least some or all of those 26 indicators…Do you think it’d be reasonable taking the regulations you promulgate and link them to those 26 indicators that you have on your website?
Administrator McCarthy: No, as … It’s unlikely that any specific one step is going to be seen as having a visible impact on any of those impacts, a visible change in any of those impacts.
Consider as well the Regulatory Impact Analysis that EPA issued with the Carbon Pollution Standard. On page 1-4, the agency states that, “EPA anticipates that the proposed [Carbon Pollution Standard] will result in negligible CO emission changes…[and] quantified benefits…by 2022.” There are no public benefits to the regulation for a simple reason: The preponderance of future greenhouse gas emissions will originate from fossil fuel combustion in Asia, Africa, and South America. As a result, U.S. domestic environmental policy is relatively inconsequential.