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By Anne Hedges

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally releasing draft rules to reign in the numerous harmful impacts of coal-fired power plants such as the Colstrip plant and the Hardin Generating Station. Four newly proposed rules will help ensure that the price of coal reflects its true cost on public health and the environment, including the climate; two of these may impact Montana. However, these are proposed rules that still need to go through the public participation process, Congressional opposition, and the courts … so how soon they will have an impact – if ever – remains to be seen. But they are all a step in the right direction, even if some are weak or contain serious flaws.


Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The first rule would limit greenhouse gas emissions from all coal and some gas-fired power plants. These power plants are the largest stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which remain stubbornly high despite overwhelming knowledge of their dangers. EPA unsuccessfully tried to regulate these emissions under Pres. Barack Obama, and Pres. Donald Trump’s EPA adopted a fake rule which was struck down in federal court. Now it’s Pres. Joe Biden’s turn, and his proposed rules are a just baby step in the right direction. 

The rules, which aren’t expected to be finalized until mid-2024, would immediately apply to any new coal-fired power plant or methane gas-fired plant over 300 megawatts. Existing power plants would face a phased-in approach starting in 2030. The rules are incredibly complex and contain many tiers for compliance that are based upon time, technology, and annual operations levels. Unfortunately, the rules rely heavily on each state developing its own plan to implement them for existing sources such as the Colstrip plant. Each state will have two years after the rule is adopted to create a state compliance plan. These plans will certainly be a serious point of contention in states such as Montana, where state agencies have a long history of ignoring science, technology, and sometimes federal law when it comes to fossil fuels.

Two hundred gigawatts of existing coal plants would be subject to the new regulation, which is based on when the plant will retire. If a plant is slated to retire before 2032, it will face no regulation. Approximately 70 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity fits under this category. If the plant will operate into the 2030s, it must co-fire with 40% methane gas. If a plant is scheduled to operate into the 2040s – such as the Colstrip plant – then 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions must be captured and sequestered underground. All of these standards change if the plant operates at a very low level (i.e., the rules are weaker if a plant operates less than 20% of the time or 50% of the time).

Although the rule also applies to gas plants, only individual gas units that are greater than 300 megawatts will have to comply, of which there are currently none in Montana. Even if the plant is larger than 300 megawatts overall, as long as each unit is less than 300 megawatts, the entire plant is exempt from the rule. These plants would eventually have to use either carbon capture and sequestration or co-fire with hydrogen that is created with low-greenhouse gas technology. This rule is also set up to require different emissions reduction techniques based upon how much the plant operates each year. 

Once the rule is published in the federal register, there will be public hearings and a 60-day public comment period. MEIC will keep you apprised of comment opportunities.

Mercury Pollution in the United States - Moms Clean Air Force

Mercury and Air Toxics

EPA also proposed a rule to strengthen the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) for coal-fired power plants such as the Colstrip plant. Coal-fired power plants emit many different types of hazardous air pollutants including mercury, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel, and selenium. EPA is proposing to strengthen the standard for non-mercury metals from 0.03 to 0.01 pounds per million btu (lbs/MMBtu). Importantly, EPA is also requiring all facilities to prove they are complying with the rule by installing continuous emissions monitors (CEMs). All plants would have to be in compliance within three years of EPA finalizing the rule. 

According to EPA, 91% of coal-fired capacity that is not scheduled to be retired in the next few years already have emissions of non-mercury metals that are at or below the proposed standard. Some plants, such as the one in Colstrip, have already installed CEMs, but they have successfully prevented regulators from being able to use the monitors to determine whether the plant is in compliance at any time. This rule will allow the state and the public to use the monitors to verify that the plant is in compliance at all times instead of the existing system where the plant only has to demonstrate it is in compliance once each quarter.  

The comment period on the proposals to strengthen the MATS rule ends on June 23. 


Two Other Rules

EPA has proposed two other rules that do not appear to impact operations of plants in Montana. One rule strengthens the requirements for wastewater treatment from coal plants. Since the Colstrip plant does not discharge wastewater (instead, it has used the groundwater as a sewer for its toxic sludge), it will not need to comply with this rule. EPA also just released a rule to strengthen coal ash disposal requirements. These new rules only apply to facilities that were exempt under EPA’s previous coal combustion residual rule. EPA is finally proposing to require cleanup at those ponds that were closed prior to 2015. 


This article was published in the June 2023 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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