If you were told that a coal-fired power plant near your home was going to invest $500 million to upgrade the facility in order to reduce the amount of harmful air pollutants it spews, you would probably think to yourself that it was about time they did something.
Air would be cleaned and the risks of pollution-oriented diseases would be reduced. Certainly this has been the position the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken throughout the years, with a brief time-out during the most recent Bush administration.
In November of 1999, at the tail end of the Clinton era, the United States Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA charged seven major US utilities with violating the New Source Review (NSR) requirements of the Clean Air Act. The lawsuits were based on the fact that these power companies had updated their plants without installing the most up-to-date pollution reduction equipment, claiming that these pollution machines had been operating for years without proper emission controls.
In all, 17 power plants across the country were targeted by the EPA and all but one ended up being settled. The companies paid millions and most ended up installing scrubbers at their facilities, a technology that reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide released as coal is burned. Most recently, Obama’s EPA has picked up where President Clinton’s left off and filed a suit against Westar Energy for failing to abide by NSR requirements at their Jeffrey Energy Center coal plant in Kansas.
Sulfur dioxide is a chemical compound that is released in the burning of coal. It contributes to the formation of acid rain and has numerous negative health effects, including breathing problems, respiratory illness and the aggravation of existing heart and lung disease. Groups most affected by sulfur dioxide exposure include the elderly and children.
It may sound contradictory, but not all environmentalists agree with the EPA that installing scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide is actually a good thing. While recognizing the benefits of cleaner air, some have argued that, in fact, upgrading a facility to meet Clean Air requirements is adding life to the plant, which will continue to pollute in many other ways.
Adding scrubbers for sulfur dioxide doesn’t scrub the carbon dioxide that causes global warming – it actually increases carbon dioxide emissions because scrubbers use energy. Scrubbers also increase the amount of coal waste that needs to be disposed of, as well as the amount of coal needed to fuel the plant, including destructive mining practices such as mountaintop removal. So, while sulfur scrubbers may “cure” the problem of sulfur dioxide, they make other problems worse. It’s like a doctor giving a patient a painkiller for a sore knee, only to discover that the medicine had created a stomach ulcer.
“Adding scrubbers will prolong the life of these plants by 30-35 years at least,” said John Blair, director of Valley Watch, an Indiana-based environmental group that monitors coal. “These installations certainly have short-term gains but over the long haul they are helping create many other environmental problems.”
For starters, carbon dioxide emissions are not regulated by the EPA and do not fall under the rubric of the Clean Air Act or its NSR requirements. So, when an old coal plant installs a multi-million dollar scrubber, the plant, as far as the EPA is concerned, is as good as new.
That’s not something that sits too well with some climate-change activists who are seeking to shut down coal plants instead of working to keep them around. Taking a cue from Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, these activists would rather see coal completely phased out of the world energy supply.
Dr. Hansen says coal “is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.” Ted Nace, in his book “Climate Hope: On the Frontlines of the Fight Against Coal,” explains why:
- First … the amount of carbon remaining in the ground in oil and gas reserves is much smaller than the amount of carbon contained in coal reserves
- Second, coal is the most carbon intense of the fossil fuels. Producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal produces about 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, while producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas produces about 1 pound of carbon dioxide. While coal produces half of the electricity in the United States, it is responsible for 80 percent of the carbon dioxide released by electric utilities.
- Third, coal consumption is far more concentrated than the use of other fossil fuels. A mere six hundred coal-burning power plants account for nearly all coal usage, in contrast to the tens of millions of cars, trucks, planes, homes, businesses and factories that burn oil and gas. Thus, reducing emissions from coal is a far simpler task.
- Four, production of oil and gas is primarily located in countries that American domestic energy policy has little of no ability to control. Any reduced consumption by the United States might well be offset by increased consumption in other countries. In contrast, our ability to control the consumption of coal is substantial, since the United States leads the rest of the world in the size of its coal reserves.
If you are concerned that the lights around the country will go off if we stop burning coal, you’ve been misled. There are three recent studies that show otherwise: Google’s Clean Energy 2030 plan, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate 2030 study and Scientific American’s Solar Grand Plan. All three of these plans show that it is feasible to replace coal with cleaner alternatives by 2030.
And while installing scrubbers may help with the sulfur dioxide emissions, as mentioned it will not help with carbon dioxide emissions, which both the EPA and Congress are currently debating how to regulate. If sulfur dioxide scrubbers are installed, power companies will have increased incentive to continue relying upon these old coal plants rather than transitioning their energy supply to cleaner alternatives. And the plants may be exempted from greenhouse gas controls, as previous drafts of prospective climate bills, such as Waxman-Markey, have suggested grandfathering in existing plants.
Further, many of the coal-burning plants targeted for retrofitting are among the oldest and dirtiest in the nation, releasing numerous toxins and pollutants into the atmosphere beyond sulfur dioxide. Having these plants catch sulfur emissions through scrubber systems does not fully address this problem and creates more coal waste.
According to a New York Times analysis of EPA data, coal plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and chemical plants. Yet, thanks to heavy lobbying by the coal industry, coal ash is classified as a nonhazardous waste, exempting it from any EPA regulations. Instead, this ash is dealt with on a state-by-state basis and many states have minimal restrictions, due to a long history of coal company influence, lobbying efforts and judicial junkets.
Since there is no system in place to formally regulate coal ash, the waste can leach into ground water, making coal ash a significant contributor to water pollution, which it’s done in dozens of states around the country. For example, after residents of Masontown, Pennsylvania, got Allegheny Energy to install scrubbers on a local plant, the company began dumping tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater containing chemicals from the scrubbing process into the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people and flows into Pittsburgh.
Even when preventive measures are in place, there can be spills. In January 2009, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Stevenson, Alabama, spilled 10,000 gallons of process water from its gypsum pond – which holds limestone spray from scrubbers – into the nearby Widows Creek and Tennessee River, contaminating local water with heavy metals and toxins . This was only one month after a TVA retention pond wall collapsed in Harriman, Tennessee, devastating nearby communities with a coal waste spill that was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Given that sulfur dioxide scrubbers do not address the problems of global warming nor coal mining and waste, Roger Clark of Natural Capitalism Solutions
has reservations about retrofitting: “Instead of shutting these plants down, the EPA is just replacing an inefficient system with a slightly less inefficient system.”
Grand Canyon Trust is currently working on shutting down the Navajo Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant, located in Arizona and New Mexico, respectively. Both plants are facing new EPA rules requiring scrubber retrofits, which could cost as much as a billion dollars for each. The group is engaged in preliminary discussions with the plants’ owners about setting a fixed date for retirement in exchange for not requiring new pollution controls.
A report on the matter, released by Grand Canyon Trust in March, indicates that it can actually be cheaper economically to retire and replace old coal plants rather than letting them continue operating. The burden of these scrubber installations typically is passed off to consumers in the form of increased electricity rates.
“My organization has been involved in three major retrofits over the last couple of decades,” added Clark. “We’ve learned our lesson and shifted our strategic objective to early retirement of coal plants instead.”
Indeed, even as the government shies away from regulating the coal and power industries, it is investigating ways to deal with the consequences of coal use. This includes researching possible geoengineering “solutions” to climate change, such as spraying sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reflect back solar radiation. In other words, if we don’t begin lowering carbon dioxide emissions and phasing out coal use, we may end up spewing the very sulfur dioxide we have spent the past few decades collecting in a last-ditch effort to save the planet.
Installing pollution controls is like prescribing Band-Aids for ailments that require surgery. Shutting down coal plants as soon as possible, as Dr. Hansen and others are calling for, is the only legitimate way to eliminate the pollution these burners produce every single day. It is also the only way to avert the catastrophes that climate change may produce for virtually all life on our little, blue planet.