New EPA Rules May Give Eastern US a Breath of Fresh Air

American Electric Power (AEP), the largest power-producing utility in the US, may retire a quarter of its fleet of coal plants by 2014, in a move that marks a major shift to cleaner energy sources.  The tentative decision to retire or replace more than 7,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity comes as AEP gets ready to comply with new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations which Congress ordered the agency to develop years ago.  If AEP makes good on its promises, it will dramatically improve air quality and reduce illness due to pollution over a vast section of the United States.

“If AEP follows through with this plan,” said Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign Friday, “then it will join a growing list of utilities including TVA, Dominion, and TransAlta that have come to the same conclusion: coal has become an increasingly poor investment.”  Hitt went on to say that, “The coal plants targeted for phase-out lack modern pollution controls and contribute to thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks and heart attacks every year.”

The EPA is in the process of finalizing new rules related to four types of environmental damage associated with coal plants: mercury emissions, toxic coal ash pollution, acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and the impacts of power plant cooling systems on aquatic life.  Some proposed rules, like the one on cooling systems, are relatively weak and are expected to do little that changes how utilities operate.  Others, like the mercury rule, could significantly reduce pollution and force utilities to either clean up or replace their dirtiest coal plants. 

To comply with new regulations now on the table, AEP says it would need to retire five aging coal plants that lack modern pollution controls, while converting other plants to run on cleaner-burning natural gas.  It also plans to build new natural gas plants, and will likely need to make additional investments in renewable energy.  Many coal plants that are not retired will need to be retrofitted with pollution controls to bring them into compliance with clean air laws.

While announcing its plans to clean up its coal fleet, AEP complained it was being forced to make a hasty decision by EPA regulations it says do not allow enough time to shift to cleaner modes of producing electricity.  In fact, new power plant regulations have been pending for years but most utilities chose to largely ignore them.  The new mercury rule, for example, is being developed by the EPA as the agency works to enforce amendments to the Clean Air Act passed by Congress in 1990. AEP knew the rule was coming for more than twenty years, but chose to wait until the last minute to begin making changes.

AEP produces electricity for a vast swath of the eastern United States, including parts of Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  This area corresponds with some of the most polluted parts of the country: the negative health effects of power plant pollution are concentrated in the east, where most coal-burning plants are located.  According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, burning coal contributes to four of the leading five causes of death in the United States: cancer, heart disease, lower respiratory illness, and stroke.

Coal also has the biggest carbon footprint of any fossil fuel commonly burned for electricity, making it a major contributor to climate change.  Coal is responsible for around half of US carbon emissions, and 80% of emissions from the utility sector. 

For years many aging coal plants have been allowed to operate, despite lacking modern pollution controls that reduce health impacts on surrounding communities.  New EPA rules, mandated by acts of Congress like the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, will force more and more companies like AEP to shift to cleaner fuels, resulting in clearer skies all over the United States. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tennesseevalleyauthority/4408959159/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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