EPA curbs 'downwind' power plant pollution

Coal-fired power plants like this one, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority and located near Clarksville, Tenn., will need to take steps to reduce emissions that drift downwind to other states.Ron Schmitt / TVA via AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Consumers in the eastern United States may pay a few cents more on their monthly electric bills in 15 years so that tens of millions of people in downwind states can breathe less smog and soot.

A rule the Bush administration issued Thursday is intended to cut nitrogen oxides, which form smog, and sulfur dioxide, which produces soot. States are getting new limits on those compounds, forcing coal-burning power plants mostly east of the Mississippi River to reduce air pollution that can drift long distances.

The changes are aimed at helping states to meet federal health-based air-quality standards. Parks and forests also are expected to have less haze as a result.

Costs examined
When the Environmental Protection Agency first proposed the rule in December 2003, it said the benefits of its “Clean Air Interstate Rule” outweighed costs, dollar for dollar, more than 20-to-1. By 2015, EPA said, there would be more than $80 billion in yearly benefits, compared to almost $4 billion in yearly costs.

Homeowners in the United States now spend on average about $70 a month for electricity, according to industry figures. The new rule is not expected to result in any significant changes in retail electricity prices between now and 2020, EPA has said.

But it would add a fraction of a penny to the cost of each kilowatt hour by 2020, the agency estimated. That would boost the average U.S. customer’s monthly electricity bill by up to $1.

EPA estimates 160 million people in 32 states — all but five of those in the East — live in areas where the air is unhealthy because of too much ozone and fine-particle pollution.

People in some areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Nevada also breathe air that doesn’t meet EPA health-based standards.

Activists had sought rule
“This is going to provide a big boost across the eastern United States for communities suffering from unhealthy particulate and smog pollution levels,” said Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, the group that first proposed the idea for the rule.

Still, Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air-pollution control officials, said the rule does not go far enough and tighter deadlines and stricter pollution limits are needed. “It’s a good first step,” he said.

The new rule would accomplish some of what President Bush had hoped to do through his top legislative priority on the environment — giving power plants, factories and refineries more time to reduce air pollution. Bush’s plan suffered a major setback Wednesday, however, when a Republican-controlled committee rejected it in the Senate.

The Environment and Public Works Committee deadlocked on a 9-9 vote on Bush’s “clear skies” bill, a name that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., described as “akin to calling Frankenstein Tom Cruise.” Opponents wanted the bill to address global warming.

Visiting Ohio, Bush renewed his call for Congress to act on the bill, saying it would “protect the environment and the economy.” Not mentioning the Senate committee vote, he told an audience in Columbus it would “allow Ohio counties to meet strict environmental standards while keeping your commitment to coal.”

Ohio utilities are prominent users of coal to generate electricity.

To comply with the new rule, power plants are expected to use scrubbers to cut sulfur dioxide and a chemical process to reduce nitrogen oxides. The rule requires combined cuts in emissions of those compounds by several million tons in 2010 and again in 2015.

Mercury rule next
Next week, EPA also plans to issue the nation’s first regulations for mercury emissions from power plants, to comply with a court-approved agreement with an environmental group.

It’s difficult predicting just how much utilities will pass on costs to consumers, said Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a lobby group for power companies.

“It likely will be very company-specific and may vary by region,” he said. “Whatever the eventual cost may be for individual customers, one thing is certain: The requirements of the Clean Air Interstate Rule combined with the pending mercury regulation will require one of the single-largest capital expenditures on air pollution controls in U.S. history.”