By Elena Saxonhouse, Sierra Club
The Big Brown coal-fired power plant in Texas emits the lung irritant sulfur dioxide at rates up to 50 times higher than plants with modern technology. The latest action out of Trump’s EPA scraps a cleanup plan for Big Brown and six other Texas coal plants, which together produce more sulfur dioxide pollution than the power plants in more than 25 other states combined. Yes, you read that right.
The previous EPA had slated these plants for cleanup within three to five years, setting emission limits for sulfur dioxide consistent with modern “scrubbers.” Scrubbers remove sulfur dioxide before it exits the plant’s smokestacks. This equipment has been installed in hundreds of other facilities around the country. Big Brown’s two boilers and nine other coal-fired boilers that were included in the proposal, all built 37 or more years ago, have no scrubbers at all. Four other boilers included in the plan have scrubbers that were installed back in the ‘70s, and don’t work nearly as well as the modern versions.
EPA released a final rule this week and it is an outrage. Pruitt has abandoned the strong proposed rule in favor of a do-nothing plan that will allow these plants to pollute just as much as they do today.
The proposed cleanup plan was to implement the Clean Air Act’s Regional Haze program. EPA issued the proposal in December 2016 as a result of a deadline suit brought by Sierra Club, Earthjustice, National Parks Conservation Association, and other allies. In the proposal, EPA found that sulfur dioxide from Texas coal-fired power plants contributes significantly to haze in national parks and refuges in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and other states. Sulfur dioxide is a dangerous compound that contributes to both visible pollution and serious health problems. It reacts in the air to form “fine particulate” pollution that penetrates sensitive parts of the lungs and can aggravate respiratory and heart diseases.
Implementing the upgrades proposed last year would have eliminated more than 180,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution every year. The reductions would have resulted not only in clearer scenic views in places like Big Bend in Texas and Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, but also widespread public health benefits in major cities like Dallas, Houston, and Oklahoma City. A public health analysis found that the proposal would save more than 600 lives every year.
Instead, the final rule allows Texas’s aging and uncontrolled coal plants to keep polluting at the same harmful levels. In making this about-face, EPA had to shove aside reams of technical and scientific data prepared by the previous administration, and ignore the legal framework of the Regional Haze program. And EPA failed to take any public comment on the new plan, despite the fact that thousands of citizens had written in to support the strong proposal.
Pruitt’s decision to scrap the proposed clean air protections fits a pattern of backward-looking decisions in this Administration, which has tied itself in knots trying to prop up the coal industry. The wind industry in Texas is booming and the solar industry is close behind. The state’s electric grid is already transitioning past coal because the energy those plants produce tends to be more expensive than other sources. Texas coal plants are dispatching less and less and many just aren’t profitable any more. Studies show that coal plants, including in Texas, can be replaced by more cost-effective clean sources like wind, solar, and energy efficiency. So why would EPA bend over backwards to make sure these extraordinarily dirty pollution sources don’t have to clean up?
One might suspect that it has something to do with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry generally, or the donations made to Pruitt-affiliated groups by the Texas companies affected by the previous Administration’s proposal. For example, Big Brown’s parent company is a large donor to the Republican Attorney Generals Association, whose “mission is electing Republicans to the Office of Attorney General”. Pruitt was a leader and active participant of this organization and benefited from its fundraising as a candidate for Oklahoma Attorney General. The Edison Electric Institute, which counts several other companies impacted by the Texas rule as members also contributes generously. It is also telling that a number of the new political hires have direct ties to the coal industry. One of the political hires, who has been actively involved in the decisionmaking process on this rule, even stated at a coal industry conference that she was there “to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you.”
Setting that background aside, let’s look at the reasons Pruitt himself might give for the reversal of the Texas regional haze plan. Pruitt talks a lot about giving the states more of a role in protecting the environment — what he calls “cooperative federalism.” But here, Texas had years to come up with its own plan to address regional haze and failed. In fact, when Pruitt tried to delay EPA’s court deadline for finalizing the plan in order to give Texas yet another chance to comply with the Clean Air Act, the court roundly rejected his request. The judge’s order noted that “Texas has had ample time to develop, submit, and negotiate a compliant state implementation plan if that was its actual preference,” and EPA must act where the state has not.
What about “getting back to basics”? Another of Pruitt’s favorite phrases. That line doesn’t work either. If clean air is not part of the “basics” of EPA’s mission, then what is? The Regional Haze program is right there in the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress, along with the ensuing requirement that plants of a certain age install the “Best Available Retrofit Technology” (BART). In the final rule, EPA institutes a weak pollution credit-trading program that it claims is an appropriate alternative to actual emission limits on Texas coal plants. But the total amount of pollution allowances granted to the plants included in the program is actually higher than what those plants collectively emitted last year. EPA even includes in the trading program the JT Deely plant, which is set to retire before trading even begins. JT Deely will be able to sell its full allotment of pollution allowances, resulting in an even greater glut of allowances in the market. By setting such a high overall cap on pollution, EPA’s plan allows the extraordinarily dirty plants that would have been cleaned up by the proposal to instead continue their status quo.
As he scraps yet another plan for clean air, we see again that Pruitt’s catchphrases are merely euphemisms for letting polluters off the hook. The Sierra Club and its clean air allies aim to see that they don’t get off so easy.