GOP Begins New Push to Delay EPA Rules on Toxic Power Plant Emissions

Republicans say installing long-overdue pollution controls would harm economic recovery, while advocates claim the rules would create jobs and save lives

A coal-fired power plant in Utah
Coal-fired power plant in Utah/Credit: arbyreed

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Under pressure from industry, Congressional Republicans are urging the U.S. EPA to further delay long-overdue rules that would limit more than 80 air toxics emitted by coal-burning power plants, barely a month after the agency announced them.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Edward Whitfield of Kentucky — a state which gets more than 90 percent of its power from coal — has said he will soon introduce legislation to postpone implementation of the regulations.

The rules in question are EPA’s air toxics standards to control mercury and other poisonous substances from power plants, as well as the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards that govern hazardous emissions from boilers and cement plants.

EPA released the nation’s first regulations for toxic power plant emissions on March 16. The boiler rules were announced in February 2011 and the cement standards in August 2010. All of the policies are mandated by the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act and originally set to be finalized in 2000.

According to EPA, the mercury and air toxics standards alone would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks each year.

Utilities and business groups say the anti-pollution rules would be too costly to implement and would force early shutdowns of power plants, threatening jobs and economic recovery.

During a hearing on the proposed EPA rulemakings last Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power, Rep. Whitfield, the subcommittee chair, said Congress has the right to change the Clean Air Act amendment if necessary. Whitfield declared his intent last week to introduce legislation after the two-week recess ends on May 1 that would delay the regulations.

In an email to SolveClimate News, a spokesperson for Rep. Whitfield said the details of the draft bill are still being finalized and declined to comment on the length of the proposed delay.

“It’s quite clear that EPA…is determined to pass regulations to increase the cost of coal and make other energy sources more competitive,” Rep. Whitfield said at the hearing. “We need a national debate on the direction that the EPA is going and the method that they’re using to get there.”

Others on the subcommittee believe the country has waited long enough for the rules designed to protect public health.

“I’m not a math major,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), “but if these were supposed to be completed in 2000 and it’s now 2011, then plant operators will have an almost 15-year delay in meeting these standards,” given that utilities have up to four years to comply.

‘Far Less Draconian’ than Many Feared

The holdup was due to a series of lawsuits and court orders.

The air toxics standards were designed to control 84 different air pollutants, including mercury, benzene and acid gases. When the Bush administration’s EPA first introduced an alternative mercury cap-and-trade system in 2004, which did not cover the other pollutants, environmentalists sued and won their case. EPA was under a court order to release the draft rule last month.

There was a lot of speculation over the years about how tough the standards would be, and whether utilities would have flexibility in complying with them.

They ended up being “far less draconian than many in the industry had feared,” energy policy expert Susan Tierney told SolveClimate News. For instance, there were concerns that EPA would force all power plants to use the same kind of pollution-control technology. Instead, utilities can choose from a variety of measures.

Tierney is managing principal at Analysis Group, a Boston-based energy consulting firm, and former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Energy. She did not attend the hearing and is not directly involved with the EPA rules or related lawsuits.

GOP Says Not Trying to Repeal Rules

Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the goal should not be “to repeal these regulations [but to] advance them in a reasonable way” without raising electricity prices or reducing jobs.

Of the seven witnesses present at the hearing, five were utility and manufacturing representatives who expressed worry over the regulations. The remaining two — Michael Bradley, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy Group, and John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Clean Air Program — urged the subcommittee to refrain from delay tactics.

EPA representatives were invited as witnesses but did not show up, prompting subcommittee member Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) to relabel the agency as the “Evaporating Personnel Administration.”

Rep. Rush countered that the EPA did not receive proper advance notice, and that the agency has very few employees with the expertise to act as witnesses. Friday’s hearing was the third in a week that requested EPA’s presence (an EPA representative attended just one of the three). In each case, the EPA had a week’s notice before the hearings took place.

‘Unreasonable’ Compliance Period

Under the new regulations, EPA would give utilities three years to install adequate pollution-control technologies.

Tom Fanning, chairman of the electric utility Southern Company and one of the panel’s witnesses, said the compliance period is “unreasonable.”

“We are very concerned … [and we] believe it could affect the reliability of power,” Fanning said, citing worries about costs, job losses and decreased capacity from power plant closures.

Bradley of the Clean Energy Group said industry has been expecting these regulations since 2000. “If there was any surprise, it was the degree of flexibility … While not perfect, [the regulations] are reasonable and consistent with the Clean Air Act.”

His comments echo a letter published in The Wall Street Journal late last year by eight utility executives voicing their support for the air toxics standards.

“The electric sector has known that these rules were coming,” the letter said. “Many companies, including ours, have already invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants.”

The EPA will give one-year extensions and possibly longer for plants that need extra time to comply, said Bradley. Some 60 percent of coal plants already have scrubbers so “we are not starting from scratch.”

Most of the control technologies can be installed in less than two years, he added. Companies can also average the emissions from multiple units to reduce the number of overall installations.

Citing a November 2010 letter from the trade group Institute of Clean Air Companies (ICAC), Bradley said the power industry has enough labor to get the job done.

ICAC Executive Director David Foerter composed the letter in response to an inquiry from Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.). In his letter, Foerter assured Carper that “based on a history of successes, we are now even more resolute that labor availability will in no way constrain the industry’s ability to fully and timely comply with the proposed … [air toxics] rules.

“Contrary to any concerns or rhetoric pointing to labor shortages, we would hope that efforts that clean the air also put Americans back to work.”

Pollution Controls Already In Use

Paul Miller, deputy director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), told SolveClimate News that many control technologies are already in use. “This isn’t Star Wars technology … [There’s no] testing barrier.”

According to a new report by consulting firm M.J. Bradley and Associates and co-authored by Bradley and Tierney of Analysis Group, some 200,000 megawatts worth of coal plants already have, or are planning to install, adequate pollution controls. That covers about 60 percent of the total U.S. coal fleet, which generates 330,000 megawatts.

Another 20,000 to 30,000 megawatts are headed towards retirement, said Tierney. These plants are small, old and generally inefficient. They’re already under economic pressure due to low natural gas prices and may be “pushed over the edge” by the EPA rules, she said.

(Listen to SolveClimate News podcast episode: Coal Owners Retiring ‘Signficant Components of Their Fleets)

“It’s like an old car that at some point loses a carburetor and it’s just not worth it to repair,” said Tierney.

In total, about 10 percent of coal capacity may be headed for retirement, said Tierney. Fanning of Southern Company said during his testimony the number is closer to 20 percent.

Bradley said that claim is an overestimate, adding that new pollution controls could limit the number of coal-plant casualties. “When we look at the flexibility included in the proposals along with some of the technologies deployed recently, it’s going to mitigate the number of retirements.”

He pointed to the technology of dry sorbent injection, an acid-gas capturing device designed for small coal plants. It’s relatively cheap, said Bradley, and already used in 43 plants.

While Fanning warned that shutdowns could lead to possible blackouts, Tierney said there is enough surplus capacity on a national scale to make up for lost power capacity.

On a regional level, Tierney said that some older and less efficient plants that might otherwise shut down would remain open to keep up adequate power supplies. In those cases, the EPA would give special extensions to allow them to reach compliance.

Costs of Control Technologies

The EPA estimates that control technologies would cost the industry nearly $11 billion a year, a price tag far outweighed by the up to $140 billion in annual health and economic benefits.

When placed in context, said Bradley, $11 billion is at most 10 percent of the $80 to $110 billion that the industry spends each year on capital and infrastructure projects.

Ratepayers would bear some of the cost of new pollution controls. On average, the EPA projects that retail electricity prices would increase 3.7 percent in 2015 and drop to a 1.9 percent increase by 2030.

Those percentage estimates are a “national average that will vary quite a bit from state to state,” said Bradley. But electricity rates also vary across different regions, so large percentage increases might have little impact in some parts of the country.

In addition to public health gains, maintaining EPA’s current timeline is in the interest of businesses, said Tierney, arguing that utilities need to know what to expect in order to make sound financial decisions.

“It would be terrible to postpone these [regulations] … not just because the toxins have been identified as problematic for a decade … but also from a business point of view.”