The Obama administration is poised to rescind a little-known emissions exemption for power plants as it seeks to flex its muscle through the Clean Air Act.
Green groups are pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize a rule that would force utilities to limit emissions of hazardous pollutants, such as those that contribute to smog, when power plants are shutting down, starting up or malfunctioning.
The environmental group Sierra Club held rallies last week near two facilities that would be affected by the end of the exemption and urged officials to issue the tightened regulation in September, as scheduled.
Activists from Detroit and Birmingham, Ala., also met last week with Obama administration officials from the EPA and Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C., to press their case for the rule.
They stressed that the rule would improve the health of residents near such facilities, who they said often tend to be minorities and earning low incomes.
“We just want to keep the pressure on EPA and the White House,” said Eitan Bencuya, a Sierra Club spokesman. “It’s an important rule — a critical rule — and we haven’t forgotten about it.”
Business and industry groups oppose the regulation but appear resigned to it taking effect.
One industry representative described the end of the exemption as the latest “in a death by 1,000 cuts” for the power industry.
“If you’re making it more difficult for the utilities to work within the Clean Air Act rules and make it more expensive to deal with these things, that’s not good for energy consumers,” said Michael Whatley, executive vice president for the Consumer Energy Alliance, a coalition of oil companies a groups representing energy-consuming industries.
The proposed rule faces a Sept. 26 deadline for finalization.
The EPA is taking it up amid other regulations on power plants proposed by President Obama. His second-term push on climate change includes a tightening of emissions rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
The EPA defended the startup, shutdown and malfunction measure, saying it would benefit people who live near the impacted power plants facilities by reducing air and water pollution.
“Air pollution emitted during these periods may adversely impact the health of people nearby and contribute to smog and other problems in communities that are further downwind,” the EPA said in a statement.
The 36 states affected by the regulation, those that have a State Implementation Plan for meeting pollution standards developed by local and state officials, but approved by the EPA, will have wide berth in how to implement the change.
It would likely be most onerous for electric utilities that occasionally need to run coal-fired “peaking” plants.
Utilities run those backup generators when demand for electricity outstrips supply. They’re often older, dirtier and more expensive to operate than those used to provide base load power.
The very nature of running those units indicates they fall outside the realm of normal operations, utility industry trade group the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) said in its comment on the proposed rule.
The group said the EPA’s proposal was too strict, contending that pollution control technologies don’t work as effectively during startup and shutdown periods because parameters, such as temperature and pressure, are different.
“For many reasons, achieving such standards would not only be technically infeasible, but also would be inconsistent with manufacturers’ recommendations and safe operating procedures for control equipment,” Quinlan Shea, EEI vice president for the environment, said in the May 13 comment.
But states would have plenty of flexibility in implementing the change, according to Adam Riedel, an associate with Los Angeles-based law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
Given that, it’s unclear whether closing the emissions loophole during the shutdown, startup and malfunction period will force utilities to mothball generators, Riedel said.
In terms of leeway, Riedel said the affected states could determine it’s impossible to install the pollution controls to comply with the regulation. They could then establish higher emissions limits for startup, shutdown and malfunction periods, he said.
Regardless, Riedel said he expected industry to file legal challenges against the rule.
“This is certainly a change that utilities are aware of and could have an impact on their operations,” Riedel said. “Plants go into startup and shutdown routinely, then you have peaking plants.”
— This story was updated at 4:05 p.m.