‘Pro-Environment Coal’ Plants Spark a Clean Air Act Battle

As President Obama looks to spend the final months of his administration cutting emissions from power plants and keeping streams free of dangerous waste, the House will take up a perplexing issue: Should power plants that use recycled material be subject to the same standards as others?

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill sponsored by Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) that would loosen limits on sulfur dioxide and hydrogen chloride emissions — two hazardous gases — from power plants that run on bituminous coal refuse, the unwanted coal that was removed from the more carbon-rich material that goes into normal coal-fired power plants. The bill would alter two portions of the Clean Air Act, the law at the center of many of Obama’s major environmental policies.

The White House issued a statement of administration policy Monday saying Obama’s advisers would recommend he veto the bill.

Yet Rothfus described the measure as a “pro-environment bill” at a House Rules Committee meeting Monday. If the coal refuse weren’t used for power plants, it would be left outside in piles, polluting nearby bodies of water. Some of the refuse piles catch fire, causing the same kind of emissions anyway.

There are 840 coal refuse piles in Pennsylvania documented by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, although some of those have been remediated. Of those, 52 have areas that are currently burning, according to spokesman Neil Shader. Instead of leaving these refuse piles to burn and pollute streams, these coal refuse plants make affordable energy. As such, the bill’s supporters believe they deserve more leeway on emission standards than other power plants. That’s what Rothfus’ bill would do.

Obama’s fight with House Republicans over these particular emissions is part of a broader battle over a wide array of pollutants. Coal is frequently considered an enemy to Democrats’ environmental goals.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of viewing coal miners as “just statistics, just the cost of doing business, just obstacles to their ideology.” He has consistently hammered on Obama for what he calls the president’s “war on coal.”

Although Rothfus’ bill doesn’t directly relate to carbon emissions, it could tie in to Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a major policy under the Clean Air Act that creates state-by-state limits on carbon emissions. The CPP already makes it less economical to operate coal refuse power plants. What’s more, if they emit more carbon because of loosened regulations, other power plants would have to make up that deficit.

“If a state is being good actor and working toward planning their [state implementation plan] for the Clean Power Plan, this is something a thoughtful state agency would take into account,” said Terry McGuire, the Washington representative for the Sierra Club, which opposes Rothfus’ bill, dubbed the SENSE Act.

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, warned Monday that because emissions standards are implemented at the state level rather than for individual power plants, the bill would throw off the system by giving refuse power plants more leeway.

“What the SENSE Act does is declare winners and losers,” Pallone said. “So essentially it alters the trading system by reserving emission credits for waste coal units that can’t be traded.”

Vincent Brisini, director of environmental affairs for Olympus Power, said the bill is more narrowly tailored than Pallone lets on. The bill wouldn’t take away emissions credits from coal refuse plants’ existing competitors. Instead, it would reallocate emissions from credits that are intended for retired plants. And it only affects bituminous coal refuse power plants, he said, not those in areas with anthracite coal.

There are currently 18 operating coal refuse power plants in the U.S., 13 of which are in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. One more is planned to open in 2020 in Wyoming. In Pennsylvania alone, these plants have eliminated 200 million tons of coal refuse, Rothfus said Monday.

“These literally spill into people’s backyards in the area where I live,” Brisini told Morning Consult. “People are very happy when someone comes and cleans up these piles.”

Environmental groups that oppose the bill acknowledge that the refuse piles are already emitting some sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But giving power plants a free ride on emission standards in order to let them burn the refuse takes nearby communities out of the frying pan and into the fire, McGuire said.

“It’s a tricky situation deciding what to do with these sites,” McGuire said. “But it’s not the best solution to burn it.”

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