Wednesday, December 21, 2011

EPA Releases Final Air Toxic Rule: Good For Gas, Renewables, Plants With Pollution Controls

The EPA just released the final Mercury and Air Toxics Standard for Power Plants.  See All gas, renewable, nuclear, and the 60% of coal plants with modern pollution controls meet the requirements of the rule.  The rule is good news for those plants that have been competing against plants that do not meet the same standards that they do.

Old oil and coal plants without modern pollution controls generally do not meet the rule and must install pollution controls or switch to natural gas or another cleaner fuel.

The rule will cut by 90% mercury emissions from power plants; 88% acid gas emissions from power plants; 41% sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants.  Oil and coal power plants emit 50% of total mercury emissions and 20% to 60% of total toxic metals like lead.  There are 1,400 coal and oil units in the nation and again about 60% already have needed pollution controls. 

The rule will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths per year; 4,700 heart attacks per year; 130,000 asthma attacks per year.  The EPA states that "the value of the air quality improvements for human health alone totals $37 billion to $90 billion each year."

The rule provides generally 4 years for plants or January 2016 to be in compliance, and a case-by-case reliability safety valve to provide an additional year for compliance to a power plant determined to be critical to reliability of the grid in a local area.  The EPA states it "believes there will be few, if any situations, in which this pathway will be needed."

The EPA projects that 4,700 megawatts or about 1.5% of the nation's coal capacity will retire as a result of the rule alone by 2016.    Low-natural gas prices, falling electricity demand forecasts, and aging of the generation fleet will lead to more power plant retirements, as the owners of 231 coal units that total 48,000 megawatts have announced they will close by 2022.

The EPA notes that builders of new power plants report to the EIA that currently 40,000 megawatts of new generation is under construction in the country, more than enough to compensate for expected retirements by 2016.

This rule does not endanger reliability.  The lights stay on, or if they go out, they do so for reasons other than this rule.


  1. Concerned ScientistDecember 22, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    I agree completely. This is great news. We'll find a way to make it work and it is a huge victory for the environment.

  2. John,

    Directly adjacent to me are two power plants consistently ranked among the worst polluters in the country. They both have scrubbers, but are still just awful on their pollutants. Any idea what will come of them (Homer City and Keystone)?


  3. Homer City has I think 3 units at the plant. At least one of the units are not scrubbed. The owners of Homer City are challenging in court the other big Air rule that EPA finalized this year: the so-called Cross State Air Transport Rule. Exelon and Calpine have intervened in the case on the side of the EPA to defend the Cross State Air Pollution Rule. The outcome of the litigation will determine a lot.

  4. I sincerely hope that it moves swiftly, in favor of those with lungs.

    Thanks for the insight John, and happy holidays!


  5. More good news for Pa. air quality:

  6. Mr. Hanger, I know that you have expressed concerns about air issues from Marcellus shale drilling and processing, and recently Mr. Quigley also commented on "severe local air pollution" in areas around compressor stations. Given that the shale is here, and the industry is moving forward, what concrete steps CAN residents near these installations take so that they are safe. My personal belief is that the companies should be required to use closed-loop systems (no wastewater impoundments which evaporate a lot of toxic chemicals into the air) and that much, much tighter controls need to be put on compressor stations. The fumes coming off of these stations drift downhill and settle into valleys and depressions, making it both risky, and quite frankly, unfair for private citizens to have to breathe this airborne industrial waste.

    What steps would have to happen for industry to clean up their act and truly become the "good neighbor" they say that they are? Is it pressure from citizens, commitment from government, or what? My assumption is that the companies believe that to put in any safety measures would cost them money and they'd rather do this on the cheap. Unfortunately, our health will be put at risk to save them a few bucks. Please understand I'm not saying any of this to be sarcastic, I'm asking this as a sincere question. I'm very worried that with the number of installations that have been permitted in close proximity to my home, that I will have to move my family far away from this in order to protect them.

    I truly want to know, what can we do to make this industry operate truly, truly safely for the people who live near their operations? You've had experience with government and have interacted heavily with the industry. What, truly, do you think we need to do to make the industry improve their practices?

  7. This is an excellent comment. It poses many good questions.

    The EPA proposed new air rules for gas drilling in July 2011. They are scheduled to be final in April 2012.

    Those rules will be important going forward.

    In addition many emission sources like compressors do already require air permits from the state. Generally the permits have been requiring the installation of better technology that sharply limits emissions. Some companies within the industry have also been moving toward engines and control systems that can reduce emissions by 90% or more from levels common just a few years ago.

    The technology exists to keep emissions low. Siting too is important. Regulation done right is a process that insures input from all sources and then a reasoned outcome. Participation in permitting and regulatory processes is vital.

  8. Dear Mr. Hanger,

    I just saw the below article about aggregation issues related to gas-processing plants. (The gist of it is that a number of plants are slated to be built over a four square mile area. Each plant produces emissions that are just below the limits for pollutants, and so are permitted. However, the plants together produce more than the appropriate level of pollutants.) I believe this is the same thing that is happening with compressor stations as well.

    To my understanding, the end result of this kind of situation is that a certain geographic area will be legally exposed to high level of pollutants, simply because the current regulations view and permit each facility individually, not taking into consideration the combined effect of all of the facilities together.

    What are your thoughts on this? Do you think there is any chance for these regulations to be revised so that the total pollutants in a geographic area can be kept within acceptable limits - not just from a legal standpoint but from a health standpoint?

    Thanks very much.


    Bevy of gas-processing plants skirts law

    By Timothy Puko
    Friday, January 6, 2012

    Six gas processing plants proposed for a four-mile radius in Butler County would each produce air pollution just below the state limits that trigger the level of regulation large polluters get, according to Pennsylvania and industry officials.

    Read the rest of the article here:

  9. The aggregation issue goes to what technology that individual sources must install. The aggregation issue involves fact specific analysis with uncertain outcomes for all involved. To call it complicated is an understatement. But if companies install the better or best technology on individual sources, as opposed to the least clean options, the aggregation issue is moot. Again it is only relevant for determining whether a threshold of pollutants is met that requires the best technologies to be deployed. If those best technologies are being deployed, then the whole aggregation arguments/cases are irrelevant. Installation of the best technologies should keep any air emissions below health-based standards.