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The Spruce and Deely coal-fired power plants owned by San Antonio's municipal utility, CPS Energy. San Antonio officials announced last month that the Deely plant would be closed 15 years ahead of schedule, avoiding the cost of new, EPA-required pollution controls, as part of San Antonio's transition to solar power and other cleaner electricity sources.

In an action that TCN Journal reported earlier this week was imminent, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced tough new pollution-reduction requirements for coal-fired power plants in Texas and 27 other states.

Such facilities in Texas, the state that uses the most coal, will particularly bear the impact of the new rules. They target emissions of pollutants that drift across state lines and add to air quality and other environmental problems at remote locations.

Public health advocates, renewable energy proponents, some power companies, environmentalists and downwind officials have applauded the EPA move.

Elected and appointed officials of Texas and some other states, particularly Republicans, and some electricity producers have been among those condemning it.

Here’s a sampling of the immediate reaction.

The New York Times reported the basic elements of the initiative and the EPA’s explanation for it this way:

[The EPA] said that the new regulations, which take effect beginning in 2012, would reduce emissions of compounds that cause soot, smog and acid rain from hundreds of power plants by millions of tons at an additional cost to utilities of less than $1 billion a year. The E.P.A. said the cleaner air would prevent as many as 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and other respiratory ailments every year.

Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, said the new rule would improve air quality for 240 million Americans living in states where the pollution is produced and or where it travels downwind.

“No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses,” Ms. Jackson said. “This is a long-overdue step to protect the air we breathe.”

The rule, which governs emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from fossil fuel-burning power plants, does not explicitly target carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Those are covered by other, far more controversial proposed regulations. But any action that cuts emissions of conventional pollutants also has the indirect effect of reducing global warming gases.

The Associated Press, in a story from Washington, spelled out the Texas ramifications:

The rule differs from one proposed by the Obama administration in July. Power plants in the District of Columbia and five states — Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and Massachusetts — will no longer have to control year-round emissions of two pollutants — sulfur dioxide, responsible for acid rain and soot, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to both smog and soot.

Texas, by contrast, will have to reduce more pollution than in the initial proposal, which required the state’s power plants only to address summertime smog-forming pollution.

In a conference call with reporters, the EPA chief said the regulation would make sure no community has to bear the burden of polluters in another state. She said just because pollution drifts far from a power plant “doesn’t mean pollution is no longer that plant’s responsibility.”

In a story from Houston, the AP reported this reaction in Texas:

“Today’s EPA announcement is another example of heavy-handed and misguided action from Washington, D.C., that threatens Texas jobs and families and puts at risk the reliable and affordable electricity our state needs to succeed,” [Gov. Rick] Perry said in a statement.

Perry, who has kept up a busy travel schedule and attacks on Washington as he considers a run for the White House, said the Obama administration seems intent on increasing energy costs for consumers and making Americans more dependent on foreign energy.

“Texas will keep standing up to this destructive federal overreach, and working to enhance environmental protection and domestic energy exploration and production,” he added.

The Houston Chronicle reported this comment from a Texas Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives:

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, also said he is skeptical that Texas coal plants could achieve the required reductions for sulfur dioxide under the schedule in the rule, despite assurances from the EPA.

“I hope the EPA is not wrong in their assumption because Texans are the ones that are going to suffer,” he said.

The Chronicle said the Texas Public Utility Commission has estimated the EPA rules “could force 18 plants – many of which were built in the 1970s – to install expensive equipment, change fuel or prematurely retire.”

In the Houston-datelined article, the AP reported this defense of the rules by Al Armendariz, the EPA regional administrator for five states including Texas:

[Armendariz] says Texas pollution is harming Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana. At the same time, pollution transported from Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri harms residents in the Lone Star State. Armendariz said the rule is aimed at helping all residents, and the EPA believes it will prevent between 670 and 1,700 premature deaths in Texas alone.


The EPA also said its cost analysis found even the oldest plants have a variety of options available that would not result in significant cost increases to consumers. Armendariz said the power plants can look at using lower-sulfur coals or installing “scrubbers,” emission-reducing equipment.

“There are cost-effective compliance options for the power plants that are achievable without reductions in reliability and without significant costs to consumers,” Armendariz said.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a national environmental and consumer-advocacy group, issued a statement  aimed at rebutting comments such as those by Perry and state environmental officials, who had alleged that the EPA rules “will result in significant increases in the cost of power as well as curtailment or shutdowns of existing coal-fired plants in Texas.”

Smith said:

Concerns about meeting Texas energy needs are unfounded.  ERCOT’s [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] most recent state of the market report along with its 2011 Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves in the ERCOT Region show that we have sufficient generating capacity to meet summer peaks.  With cost-effective energy efficiency measures, we can meet the electrical demand and clean the air.  Concerns about costs of this protective measure are also unfounded.  EPA found that this protection will result in a less than one percent increase on electricity bills.

We believe – and, the Texas PUC’s own Itron report, the “Assessment of the Feasible and Achievable Levels of Electricity Savings from Investor Owned Utilities in Texas: 2009-2018,” shows – that we can cost effectively reduce the energy needed in Texas by 23 percent using energy efficiency measures that are far cheaper than the cost of burning coal. Today Texans are paying almost $6 billion a year in health care costs resulting from power plant pollution, and the insignificant cost increases that might result to consumers will be more than made up in lowered medical costs for all.

In an opinion column published last week in the Austin American-Statesman, consulting economist Ray Perryman, writing on behalf of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, criticized the then-still-pending EPA rules:

[The emission-reduction mandate] is disproportionately punitive to Texas compared to other states. Texas would be required to make nearly half of the nationwide sulfur dioxide reductions required by the proposed rule despite the fact that the downwind states already comply with mandated standards. Texas’ inclusion is based on flawed assumptions. For example, the agency incorrectly assumes that Texas plants can easily and immediately (by January 2012) switch from local lignite to coal mined and imported from other states. Apart from the technical and pragmatic issues involved, approximately 3,000 Texans are employed directly in the lignite mining sector. The overall impact of this activity includes over $1.3 billion in annual gross product and almost 14,000 permanent jobs. It also provides approximately $71 million per year ($142 million per biennium) in state revenues and is the lifeblood of several small communities.

Over the last 10 years, Texas has worked hard to achieve a 33 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions. This rule would require a larger relative decrease from current levels in just six months.

The only practical way for Texas to comply by the 2012 date would be for generators to stop operating the affected units for most of the year, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs, the closing of lignite mines, serious risks to electric reliability, and substantial rate increases. The losses from three plants in East Texas alone would be over $400 million in annual output and more than 3,100 jobs (over and above those at the mines).

An economist who heads Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program told NPR, however, that the health-enhancing benefits of the EPA initiative will be well worth the expense:

[…] Overall, Harvard Economist Robert Stavins says, the new regulation is a real winner for the economy.

“It doesn’t mean that there are no costs, but the benefits of the transport rule in terms of human health protection tremendously outweigh the costs of this,” he says.

Stavins says even in parts of the country where electricity costs will increase a little bit, health care savings in those same communities will more than compensate.

Another positive assessment of the EPA’s cleanup action was issued by Kip Averitt, a former Republican state senator from Waco, speaking in his current role as chairman of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition. The coalition describes itself as “an alliance of business and economic development groups, faith-based organizations, the Latino and African-American communities, labor, and academia.”

Highlighting the EPA regulations’ job-creating potential for Texas, Averitt said:

Compliance will require significant planning and resources on the part of Texas utilities.

In addition, the regulation presents Texas with a unique opportunity to build alternative sources of electric power generation from cleaner-burning natural gas, renewable sources of energy and greater reliance on energy efficiency. Doing so will create more skilled, high-paying jobs across the Lone Star State.

– Bill Dawson

[Disclosure: The Texas Clean Energy Coalition was launched with the support of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. George Mitchell founded the Houston Advanced Research Center, which publishes Texas Climate News.]

Image credit: CPS Energy