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National News

New EPA rules will force fossil fuel power plants to cut pollution

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by Robert Zullo, Colorado Newsline
April 26, 2024

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released a sweeping set of rules aimed at cutting air, water and land pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Environmental and clean energy groups celebrated the announcement as long overdue, particularly for coal-burning power plants, which have saddled hundreds of communities across the country with dirty air and hundreds of millions of tons of toxic coal ash waste. The ash has leached a host of toxins – including arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, radium and other pollutants – into ground and surface water.

“Today is the culmination of years of advocacy for common-sense safeguards that will have a direct impact on communities long forced to suffer in the shadow of the dirtiest power plants in the country,” said Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organizations. “It is also a major step forward in our movement’s fight to decarbonize the electric sector and help avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

But some electric industry and pro-coal organizations blasted the rules as a threat to jobs and electric reliability at a time when power demands are surging. They also criticized the rule’s reliance on largely unproven carbon capture technologies.

America’s Power, a trade organization for the nation’s fleet of about 400 coal power plants across 42 states, called the number of new rules “unprecedented,” singling out the new emissions standards that will force existing coal plants to cut their carbon emissions by 90% by the 2032 if they intend to keep running past 2039. Michelle Bloodworth, the group’s president and CEO, called the rule “an extreme and unlawful overreach that endangers America’s supply of dependable and affordable electricity.”

‘This forces that’

Many experts expect the regulations to be litigated, particularly the carbon rule, since the last time the EPA tried to restrict carbon emissions from power plants, a group of states led by West Virginia mounted a successful legal challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Julie McNamara, deputy policy director with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the agency took great pains to conform the rule to the legal constraints outlined by the court.

“This rule is specifically responsive to that Supreme Court decision,” she said. “Which doesn’t mean that it won’t go to the courts but this is so carefully hewn to that decision that it should be robust.”

The four rules EPA released Thursday mainly target coal-fired power plants.

“By developing these standards in a clear, transparent, inclusive manner, EPA is cutting pollution while ensuring that power companies can make smart investments and continue to deliver reliable electricity for all Americans,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said.

In some ways, they attach a framework to a sea change in electric generation that is already well under way, McNamara said.

Coal accounted for just 16% of U.S. electric generation in 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 1990, by comparison, it comprised more than 54% of power generation. However, some states are more reliant on coal power than others.

In 2021, the most coal-dependent states were West Virginia, Missouri, Wyoming and Kentucky, per a 2022 report by  the EIA.

“This rulemaking adds structure to that transition,” McNamara said. “For those who have chosen not to assess the future use of their coal plants, this forces that.”

Heather O’Neill, president and CEO of the clean energy trade group Advanced Energy United, said the new regulations are a chance for utilities to embrace cheaper, cleaner and more reliable options for the electric grid.

“Instead of looking to build new gas plants or prolong the life of old coal plants, utilities should be taking advantage of the cheaper, cleaner, and more trusty tools in the toolbox,” she said.

The carbon rule

In 2009, the EPA concluded that greenhouse gas emissions “endanger our nation’s public health and welfare,” the agency wrote, adding that since that time, “the evidence of the harms posed by GHG emissions has only grown and Americans experience the destructive and worsening effects of climate change every day.”

The new carbon emissions regulation will apply to existing coal plants and new natural gas plants. Coal plants that plan to operate beyond 2039 will have to capture 90% of their carbon emissions by 2032. New gas plants are split into three categories based on their capacity factor, a measure of how much electricity is generated over a period of time relative to the maximum amount it could have produced. The plants that run the most (more than 40% capacity factor) will have to capture 90% of their carbon emissions by 2032. Existing gas plants will be regulated under a forthcoming rule that “more comprehensively addresses GHG emissions from this portion of the fleet,” the agency said.

Michelle Solomon, a senior policy analyst for Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy think tank, predicts that most coal plants will close rather than install the costly technology to capture carbon emissions.

“Climate goals aside, the public health impacts of the rules in securing the retirement of coal fired power plants is so important,” she said. Coal power in the U.S. has been increasingly pressured by cheaper gas and renewable generation and mounting environmental restrictions, but some grid operators have still been caught flat-footed by the pace of coal plant closures.

“I think the role of this rule, to provide that certainty about where we’re going, is so crucial to get the entities that have control over the rate of the transition to start to take action here,” she said. But the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s CEO, Jim Matheson, called the rules “unlawful, unrealistic and unachievable” noting that it relies on technology “that is not ready for prime time.”

And Todd Snitchler, president and CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association, a trade group for competitive power suppliers, called the rule “a painful example of aspirational policy outpacing physical and operational realities” because of its reliance on unproven carbon capture and hydrogen blending technologies to cut emissions.

A beefed up Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule

The EPA called the revision to the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards “the most significant update since MATS was first issued in February 2012.” It predicted the rule would cut emissions of mercury and other air pollutants like nickel, arsenic, lead, soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and others. It cuts the mercury limit by 70% for power plants fired by lignite coal, which is the lowest grade of coal and one of the dirtiest to burn for power generation.

For all coal plants, the emissions limit for toxic metals is reduced by 67%. The EPA says the rule will result in major cuts in releases of mercury and other hazardous metals, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.  The agency projects “$300 million in health benefits,” including reducing risks of heart attacks, cancer and developmental delays in children and $130 million in climate benefits.

Stronger wastewater discharge limits for power plants

Coal fired power plants use huge volumes of water, and when the wastewater is returned to lakes, rivers and streams it can be laden with mercury, arsenic and other metals as well as bromide, chloride and other pollution and contaminate drinking water and harm aquatic life.

The new rule is projected to cut about 670 million pounds of pollutants discharged in wastewater from coal plants per year. Plants that will cease coal combustion over the next decade can abide by less stringent rules.

“Power plants for far too long have been able to get away with treating our waterways like an open sewer,” said Thomas Cmar, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, during a briefing on the new rules earlier this week.

Closing a coal ash loophole

Coal ash, what’s left after coal has been burned for power generation, is one the nation’s largest waste streams. The 2015 EPA Coal Combustion Residuals rule were the first federal regulations for coal ash. But that rule left about half of the ash sitting at power plant sites and other locations – much of it in unlined disposal pits – unregulated because it did not apply to so-called “legacy impoundments” that were not being used to accept new ash.

“We’re going to see a long-awaited crackdown on coal ash pollution from America’s coal plants, and it’ll be a huge win for America’s health and water resources,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney with Earthjustice. “They are all likely leaking toxic chemicals like arsenic into groundwater and most contain levels of radioactivity that can be dangerous to human health.”

Groundwater monitoring data shows that the vast majority of ash ponds at coal plants are contaminating groundwater, said Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. Butunder the old rule, Russ said, facilities could dodge cleanup requirements by blaming contamination on older ash dumps not covered by the regulation.

“This is a huge loophole,” Russ said. “You can’t restore groundwater quality if you’re only addressing half of the coal ash sources on site.”

However, several attorneys on the Earthjustice briefing said the new rules, which will require monitoring at clean up and hundreds of more ash sites, will only be as good as the enforcement.

“It’s meaningful only if these utilities obey the law. Unfortunately to date, many of them have not,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

This story is republished from CO Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.