May 8, 2011 at 9:22AM
by Jim DiPeso
There's a draft bill circulating around Capitol Hill, purportedly whipped up by American Electric Power (AEP), that would change the Clean Air Act into a kind of fast-food menu for coal-fired power plants.
Plant owners would be exempted from any EPA regulations taking effect in 2010 or later - for example, the new rule requiring greenhouse gas emissions permits for large new and modified plants, proposed limits on mercury and other air toxins, and lower limits on precursors of ozone and dangerous particulate matter in 31 states east of the Rockies.
Owners would be given a choice to make by 2014 - a) agree to close their coal clunkers by 2021 or replace them with natural gas, renewables, or "advanced" coal technology - "advanced" being undefined, or b) if they choose to keep them running, comply with numerical reductions in mercury, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide spelled out in the bill, again by 2021.
In concept, the bill's approach is not inherently bad. The problem is the execution. More about that in a minute.
Since the Clean Air Act was passed, there has been an ongoing debate about what to do with decades-old power plants that lack pollution controls but were "grandfathered" under the law. Of the some 1,900 coal plants of all sizes in operation as of 2009, nearly 38 percent lack SOX scrubbers.
The Clean Air Act's "New Source Review" provision was intended to serve as a compromise that wouldn't force the old beaters to clean up immediately, but would require them to do so if they came in for a permit to expand or modify the plants. Lawyers for utilities and environmental organizations have chased each other in circles in federal courtrooms over interpretation and enforcement of the complex provision.
Back in 2003, the National Academy of Public Administration - a congressionally chartered public policy think tank - published a report recommending an end to grandfathering: within 10 years, all grandfathered plants should install pollution controls that meet standards imposed on new power plants.
The academy's report has been in repose on dusty shelves for eight years. You can't even find it on the academy's web site anymore. Fortunately, I kept my creaky old eMac, which faithfully stores my old files.
Back to the purported American Electric Power bill draft. Here is one of the big problems identified by the middle-of-the-road Environmental Defense Fund. While the bill would require utilities either to put their unscrubbed coal plants out to pasture or install pollution controls, the 2021 compliance deadline would be significantly longer than what EPA has proposed and the prescribed emissions limits weaker, allowing 34,000 more premature deaths, 220,000 more asthma attacks, and 1.5 million more lost work days than would otherwise occur.
Plus, it would bar regulation of carbon pollution. The bash-EPA boo birds in Congress argue that Congress should be the one to regulate CO2, but they show not the slightest inclination to do so.
The national academy report had better ideas. In addition to ending grandfathering, it called for strong enforcement of New Source Review while Congress is writing grandfathering out of the law, and clarifying the provision so that compliance is more predictable and less complicated.
Meanwhile, the bill draft - like the old coal plants to which the bill would cut too much slack - needs a good scrubbing.