The EPA's capricious lignite rule
by KATHLEEN HARTNETT WHITE
Jul 28, 2011 | 1281 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print


AS SOON AS next year, Texans who use electricity may have less of it, and at a far higher price, compliments of an Environmental Protection Agency rule fraught with false assumptions, specious logic and technical errors. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, adopted earlier this month, threatens the use of lignite coal from Texas for electrical generation — and, therefore, threatens more than one-tenth of the state’s electricity supply.

The focus of EPA concern is sulfur dioxide. Although Texas power plants have reduced this pollutant by 33 percent over the last 10 years, the new rule mandates a relatively larger reduction of sulfur dioxide within the next six months, with compliance required by January.

The EPA apparently assumes Texas can readily switch to lower-sulfur coal from Wyoming. But the rule’s emission reductions are unachievable for most plants. Overnight fuel-switching is logistically and legally impossible.

Retrofitting plants that now use lignite would involve three to four years of engineering, fabrication, boiler reconstruction, new rail construction and complex new permits — at multibillion-dollar costs. Texas electric companies recently testified to the Texas Public Utility Commission that the rule may force plant closures and limited operation of other plants.

LIGNITE COAL provides 11 percent of electricity generation in Texas. Abrupt elimination of lignite in the fuel mix risks 7,000 to 13,000 megawatts of generation across the state, reducing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ targeted reserve margin of 13.75 percent of surplus capacity to 5.2 percent at best — and at worst, it takes us into deficit. This is a sobering statistic on hot summer days when the council has issued energy emergency alerts because electricity demand may exceed available generation.

The lignite industry is also vital to the Texas economy. Directly and indirectly, lignite mining supports 10,000 to 14,000 jobs and is the lifeblood of local tax bases and business in many Texas communities. Lignite contributes $1.3 billion to the state’s economy and $71 million to state revenues. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers told the EPA that the Clean Air Transport Rule also threatens the jobs of 1,500 union members working at six power plants in Texas.

The purpose of this complex rule is to prohibit interstate transport of power plant emissions that hinder attainment of national ambient air quality standards in downwind states. The EPA concludes that sulfur dioxide emissions from Texas plants may affect attainment of fine particulate matter standards in St. Louis. Yet this city now attains that standard — as does Texas. Furthermore, the EPA’s own modeling shows that Texas emissions do not trigger effects in Missouri or any other state.

THE EPA justifies saddling Texas with this onerous regulation based on the flimsiest speculation — not needed environmental benefits, but based on what might occur in the future. If Texas is not regulated under this rule, the EPA conjectures, electric utilities might use more of the less expensive, but higher sulfur, lignite coal.

In its proposal, the EPA requested comments on Texas but did not include Texas in the rule nor provide any information about specific Texas requirements. By pulling Texas in at the last hour, the EPA flouted the constitutional due process guaranteed in the Administrative Procedures Act for all rulemaking.

When federal power is asserted without giving formal notice to those entities coerced by that power, this country tilts toward the likes of Venezuela . The EPA has no environmental basis for subjecting Texas to this rule. It is using the Clean Air Act, intended to protect human health, to force an energy policy to suppress coal regardless of economic consequences.

Once again, Texas, the job-creating engine of the country, stands in the crosshairs of the EPA’s legally unjustified mandates. Texans should not accept submission to the EPA, an increasingly arbitrary and capricious master.

Kathleen Hartnett White is director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. hwhite@texaspolicy.com.
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