EPA Rules Mean Big Challenges Ahead for Dirty Coal

Guest Blog | January 27, 2010 | Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities
Atlanta skyline, smog and pollution, from Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Georgia.In recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken great strides to improve air quality and protect the environment by proposing stricter standards for ozone and sulfur dioxide, and begin regulation of coal ash waste and greenhouse gases.  If these standards and regulations are implemented, they could inhibit the development of new coal-fired power plants by creating such a strict regulatory environment that utility companies will have fewer incentives to push dirty coal and more incentives to pursue clean energy alternatives.  The ozone and sulfur dioxide standards are open for public comment and we hope you might take a chance to support stronger rules to protect public health.

Ozone-In early January 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a stricter air quality standard for ground level ozone, also known as smog, that would bring health benefits to many Americans.  The new ozone proposal would set the primary smog standard at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm) measured over an eight hour period.  The current level is set at 0.075 ppm over 8 hours.  The EPA is also proposing an additional standard that would protect plants and trees from extended exposure levels.

Ozone is created when Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight. NOx and VOCs come primarily from power plants, industrial facilities, vehicle exhaust and gasoline vapors. Hot weather combined with sunlight tends to exacerbate this problem, making smog a more serious pollutant in the summertime.  Ozone is known to aggravate asthma and respiratory illness, particularly among the young and elderly and people living with lung and heart disease.  Electric power plant emissions contribute one third of the human produced NOx emissions.

The Charlotte, NC News and Observer reports that:

In proposing the new limits, the Obama administration acknowledged that the tougher rules could cost electric utilities and oil companies as much as $90 billion in compliance costs. But the federal agency justified the expense by citing the potential savings – between $13 billion and $100 billion per year, depending on just where the limit is set, in avoided medical costs and missed workdays from reductions in asthma, bronchitis and other health complications.

Written comments can be submitted online under Docket No.: EPA-HQ-OAR-2005-0172 until March 22, 2010.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)– In December 2009, the EPA proposed new rules to limit SO2 emissions. If these new rules are implemented it will be the first time in 38 years that EPA has acted to limit these emissions.

In the United States, coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of SO2 emissions.  Coal naturally contains sulfur that combines with oxygen when burned to produce SO2. Sulfur dioxide can cause significant upper respiratory health problems and even lead to premature death especially in areas near where coal plants or industrial facilities are located.  In addition, sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain, which can cause damage to fish and other aquatic species, soil and vegetation.

The strictest EPA proposal is to create a 1-hour standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb), which SACE fully supports. According to the American Lung Association, limiting SO2 emissions to 50 ppb would reduce the pollution by one million tons per year and could save between 4,700 to 12,000 premature deaths each year, by 2020.  The current standard is a 24-hour standard at 140ppb. Both the EPA and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), an independent panel of expert scientists, physicians, and researchers, agree that the current standard fails to protect public health.

Written comments may be submitted online under Docket No.: EPA-HQ-OAR-2007-0352 until February 8, 2010.

In addition to proposing tighter ozone and sulfur dioxide standards, EPA has announced plans to regulate coal ash waste and greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in history.  Considering that neither coal ash waste, nor CO2 are currently regulated, the imposition of these constraints to utility companies could profoundly affect the ease of developing and operating coal plants in the future.

coal ash

Coal Ash- In response to the December 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, TN that devastated the local community, EPA announced plans to develop regulations for coal ash waste by the end of 2009.  The coal industry has effectively lobbied Congress intensively over the years to ensure that coal ash remains an unregulated by product of burning coal and unfortunately to this date continues to be left unmonitored by EPA even though it is filled with a number of highly toxic pollutants and remains a serious threat to public health, our water, and our ecosystems.

The anticipated announcement by EPA of coal ash as a toxic pollutant continues to be postponed leaving many frustrated with EPA for not moving swiftly enough.

For more information please visit EPA’s website.

Greenhouse Gases– In the Spring of 2009, EPA issued a proposed endangerment finding to determine whether or not carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pose a risk to public health.  The results of the endangerment finding, issued in December of 2009, were overwhelmingly conclusive that indeed, carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants are a significant public health and environmental threat and “it is critical that EPA fulfill its obligation to respond to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined that greenhouse gases fit within the Clean Air Act definition of air pollutants”.

Thus, EPA has moved to develop a proposal to control CO2 emissions from major sources. According to a recent New York Times Article:

Ms. [Lisa] Jackson [Administrator of EPA] described the proposal as a common-sense rule tailored to apply to only the largest facilities — those that emit at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year — which are responsible for nearly 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The proposed rules, which could take effect as early as 2011, would place the greatest burden on 400 power plants, new ones and those undergoing substantial renovation, by requiring them to prove that they have applied the best available technology to reduce emissions or face penalties.

Recently there has been significant backlash from Congress, namely Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, at the idea of EPA imposing new CO2 standards. The threat to the coal industry is palatable and eliciting strong responses from those who would be regulated.

Click here for more information on the proposed “Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule”.

All combined, these stricter standards and proposed new rules could have significant impacts on the utility industry plans to build new coal plants.  We are hopeful that EPA remains firm in their efforts to truly be the defenders of the environment and air quality as charged by Congress nearly 40 years ago, and that misguided projects in the Southeast like Power4Georgian’s Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill will be even more unlikely to occur.


Ulla Reeves contributed to the writing and editing of this blog post.

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