Disputed power plant for San Joaquin Valley clears hurdle

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Should all new power plants install the ‘best available technology’ to control pollution? Not necessarily, the Obama administration said on Tuesday, reversing a long-held policy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, battling an industry lawsuit, told a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia that it would allow a controversial gas-fired plant to be built in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s most polluted regions.

The $530-million plant, in Avenal, would be allowed to proceed because it had been in the pipeline for several years, having received a preliminary permit from the California Energy Commission in 2009, before new federal air pollution standards were issued, the EPA said. The plant’s Texas-based builder, Macquarie Energy, had sued the agency for delaying approval.

Ten to 20 other proposed power plants across the nation could also be eligible to be ‘grandfathered’ under the new policy, an EPA spokesman said. That would mean they could be built without the newest equipment even if they cause a region to violate new pollution limits on sulfur dioxide (S02), nitrogen oxides (NO2), or carbon dioxide (CO2), the planet-heating gas that is held to be most responsible for climate change.


The new policy comes as the Obama administration is under attack in Congress for seeking to control CO2 and other planet-heating emissions under the Clean Air Act. Legislation introduced this week would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to issue carbon-dioxide rules, which the Obama administration says are necessary to combat climate change.

Environmental groups in the San Joaquin Valley greeted the EPA decision with dismay. ‘This exemption is outrageous and unprecedented,’ said Tom Frantz, president of the Kern county-based Assn. of Irritated Residents, a plaintiff in several lawsuits over San Joaquin Valley air. ‘We have the worst air in the nation.’

He said the builder of the plant should upgrade it. ‘A six-month delay to make the plant cleaner is easily justified,’ he said. ‘This plant will be here polluting our air for the next 40 years.’

But energy developers said that changing the rules in midstream, after they have applied for permits, is unfair. New pollution rules have effectively caused a ‘moratorium’ on the construction of power plants and large industrial facilities, they argued.

The 600 MW Avenal plant, about 55 miles southwest of Fresno, in Kings County , would sell its electricity to Pacific Gas & Electric. It would use highly efficient technology to power 450,000 homes and small businesses, according to the Avenal Power Center LLC website.

The EPA is expected to solicit public comment on the new shift in policy.

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-- Margot Roosevelt