Trump’s plan saves ag­ing coal-fired power plants — and their smog

Ni­tro­gen ox­ide emis­sions could surge un­der looser poli­cies, crit­ics say


WASH­ING­TON Tucked in­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to ease car­bon diox­ide lim­its is a change that could breathe new life into scores of ag­ing coal power plants.

Ex­perts say the shift could also un­leash an ad­di­tional tens of thou­sands of tons of ni­tro­gen ox­ide emis­sions into the air each year.

The pro­posal would per­mit up­grades to old power plants without trig­ger­ing an ex­ist­ing le­gal re­quire­ment to in­stall costly pol­lu­tion con­trol sys­tems at the same time. The up­grades could ex­tend the lives of those plants by mak­ing them more re­li­able or cheaper to run.

For coal power plant own­ers, “this pro­posal seems to want to let them have their cake and eat it too: to im­prove their ef­fi­ciency, run more of­ten and not trig­ger” the re­quire­ments, said An­dres Restrepo, a staff lawyer with the Sierra Club.

More than a third of Amer­i­can coal-fired units lack mod­ern con­trols to pare smog-form­ing ni­tro­gen ox­ide emis­sions, ac­cord­ing to a Bloomberg News re­view of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency data.

Some of those plants went into op­er­a­tion in the 1950s and 1960s, pre­dat­ing ad­vanced cat­alytic-re­duc­tion equip­ment and reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments com­pelling its use.

All told, at least 33 per cent of elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by burn­ing coal last year was not sub­jected to ad­vanced pol­lu­tion con­trols, ac­cord­ing to EPA data.

For years, own­ers of those ag­ing fa­cil­i­ties have faced a ma­jor chal­lenge: The plants might ben­e­fit from equip­ment re­place­ments and up­grades that would make them more re­li­able and less costly to run — and bet­ter able to com­pete with nat­u­ral gas-fired units. Yet any change that would bol­ster ni­tro­gen ox­ide emis­sions by 40 tons a year — per­haps just be­cause the plants would run more as a re­sult of the up­grades — would also trig­ger re­quire­ments to in­stall mod­ern con­trols to keep those pol­lu­tants at bay.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s EPA is of­fer­ing a re­vi­sion as part of its pro­posal to re­place an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tion slash­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sions across the na­tion’s elec­tric grid with mod­est re­quire­ments for ef­fi­ciency up­grades at in­di­vid­ual power plants.

At issue is the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s so-called New Source Re­view pro­gram, which al­lows power plants, re­finer­ies, fac­to­ries and other in­dus­trial fa­cil­i­ties to keep run­ning with ex­ist­ing pol­lu­tion-con­trol equip­ment — even if it has be­come out­dated — so the sys­tems don’t con­stantly need up­grades.

Un­der the New Source Re­view pro­gram, re­quire­ments for bet­ter pol­lu­tion-con­trol sys­tems are trig­gered when­ever the sites un­dergo con­struc­tion, ren­o­va­tions or some op­er­a­tional changes ex­pected to sig­nif­i­cantly boost an­nual emis­sions.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed changes would make it harder to trig­ger the re­quire­ment by adding an ad­di­tional test: in­sist­ing that emis­sions also go up on a short-term, hourly ba­sis — in ad­di­tion to the an­nual surge.

“That’s a test de­signed to never be trig­gered,” said John Walke, clean air di­rec­tor at the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Council. “This has been the long-stand­ing dream of coal power plant lawyers and lob­by­ists dat­ing to at least the late ’70s.”

A sim­i­lar ef­fort was pro­posed by the EPA un­der Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, but it was ul­ti­mately aban­doned in the wan­ing years of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Sup­port­ers say the change would give plant own­ers the free- dom to im­prove plants without fear of pol­lu­tion-con­trol re­quire­ments that could be too costly to jus­tify.

Trig­ger­ing New Source Re­view “in the past could cause the plant to be shut down,” said Jay Lehr, science di­rec­tor with the con­ser­va­tive Heart­land In­sti­tute. But the Trump pro­posal “fo­cuses on mak­ing power plants more ef­fi­cient re­gard­less of emis­sions.”

As­sis­tant Ad­min­is­tra­tor for the Of­fice of Air and Ra­di­a­tion Bill Wehrum told re­porters Tues­day that the short-term, rate-based test also aligns the New Source Re­view pro­gram with other EPA stan­dards. The changes, which would ap­ply just to power plants, would also en­able the kind of ef­fi­ciency up­grades en­vi­sioned un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed car­bon diox­ide re­quire­ments, Wehrum said.

The shift aims “to fur­ther en­cour­age ef­fi­ciency im­prove­ments at ex­ist­ing power plants,” and “will re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tions in emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide and tra­di­tional air pol­lu­tants,” the EPA said in an emailed state­ment.

It’s not clear how many coal power plant own­ers might take advantage of the open­ing to im­prove their fa­cil­i­ties, amid stiff com­pe­ti­tion from cheap nat­u­ral gas and with no hint of price re­lief on the hori­zon.

“With gas prices low, coal plants are marginally com­pet­i­tive as it is,” said Bloomberg In­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst Kit Kono­lige.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­posal isn’t chang­ing Amer­i­can Elec­tric Power Co.’s plans to in­vest in re­new­able power, nat­u­ral gas and ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies, said spokes­woman Melissa McHenry. But “there may be some plans that end up hav­ing a longer life,” McHenry told Bloomberg En­vi­ron­ment.

Tom Fan­ning, chief ex­ec­u­tive of South­ern Co., said Tues­day the util­ity doesn’t plan to up­grade its ex­ist­ing coal-fired units or build new ones.

Other U.S. plant own­ers could take advantage of the shift to help their ag­ing coal units eke out a few more years.

“At this time, there is lim­ited — but real — in­ter­est in in­vest­ing in ex­ist­ing coal gen­er­a­tion in the U.S.,” said Stephen Munro, an an­a­lyst with Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance. “Po­ten­tial ac­quir­ers have iden­ti­fied spe­cific plants where sell­ing coal-fired power can pro­duce at­trac­tive re­turns due to the plant’s lo­ca­tion, gen­er­a­tion ef­fi­ciency and favourable fu­el­sup­ply terms.”

The ef­fect of the reg­u­la­tory change would de­pend heav­ily on the price of nat­u­ral gas, the chief com­peti­tor to coal power, said Brian Potts, an en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer and part­ner at Perkins Coie. “If gas prices in­crease and coal gets back in the money,” Potts said, “this could be a big deal.”


A coal burn­ing power plant in Col­strip, Mont. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ad­vanc­ing its plan to re­place the cen­tre­piece of former pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ef­forts against global warm­ing with a new rule ex­pected to be more friendly to the coal in­dus­try.


U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has an­nounced a plan to weaken reg­u­la­tions on U.S. coal plants, some of which have been op­er­at­ing since the 1950s.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.