The Bush administration's plans for a massive buildup of power plants nationwide could result in dirtier air in places where smog is already bad and getting worse--particularly in the Midwest and the South, air quality experts fear.
Smog levels have been cut nationwide in the last 20 years, but the 1990s saw deteriorating air quality in places such as Columbus, Ohio, where the number of smoggy days jumped 78% during the decade, and Memphis, Tenn., where they doubled, according to figures from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
A large part of the deterioration is attributable to power plant emissions--a major contributor to ozone, which is colorless, and haze. Despite cleanup efforts, power plant emissions are up across much of the fast-growing South and in the Plains states.
Meanwhile, generating plants running at peak capacity to produce electricity for California are sullying Western skies too. Smokestack emissions are up from Washington state to Utah and Arizona to Montana, the EPA says.
"The interior West has fantastic visibility, and power plants are one of the primary causes of visibility degradation," said Bruce Driver, executive director of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "The emissions stand out like pouring red wine on white carpet. We have concerns about building new power plants in the West."
The administration's energy plan calls for building up to 1,900 plants over the next two decades, increasing the nation's electrical generating capacity by at least half. That is equivalent to two new 300-megawatt plants a week--the fastest rate of expansion over such a long period since the end of World War II, according to the Department of Energy.
Republicans at the White House and in Congress say they are confident they can chart a path toward energy stability without harming the environment.
"Whichever way we go, we'll maintain the air quality standards," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the House energy and air quality subcommittee.
In theory, more power plants do not have to mean worse air quality. Even plants burning coal, which is the dirtiest of the fuels in current use, can be made much cleaner. (A separate problem--emission of gases that can contribute to global warming--is worsened by any increase in the number of power plants burning coal, oil or natural gas.)
What most concerns air quality officials is that the administration not only has proposed increasing the number of plants, but it also has stalled efforts initiated by the Clinton administration to force dozens of dirty, older coal-fired plants to install up-to-date pollution control equipment through a rule, known as new source review, that is designed to control emissions from new and modified plants.
Administration officials began a series of public hearings last week on their proposals to replace the new source review rules.
When it comes to air quality, the administration's energy plan offers a fork in the road, said John D. Bachmann, associate director of science policy in the EPA's air quality division.
"The good path is: We can build a lot of new power plants with modern technology that have less emissions and phase out older plants," he said. "Or we can loosen emissions caps and the new source review regulations, burn lots of coal and let the power plants go."
Under that scenario, "you would see a worsening of air quality," he said.
Power plants will be the major factor governing air quality in much of the nation for decades, said William Chameides, a chemist in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
"Extra power plants will put more emissions in the air," he said. "I don't know if people have thought this out very well, and I don't think people are aware of the magnitudes we are talking about."
In the optimistic view, the future could look like the Polk Power Station, now operating in a swamp near Fort Lonesome, Fla. The plant is one of two commercial clean-coal plants, which burn gases emitted from superheated coal. It emits 85% fewer nitrogen oxides than a typical coal-fired plant.
Nitrogen oxides, which contribute to haze and acid rain, are one of the major pollutants produced by power plants. In the air, they are key to forming ozone, a toxic gas that can sear lung tissue and cause shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and long-term loss of lung function.
Nitrogen oxides are also the only major pollutant targeted under the Clean Air Act that is not in decline. Emissions have increased nearly 20% since 1970, according to the EPA, with most growth due to coal-fired power plants and heavy-duty diesel engines.
Nationwide, emissions of all smog-forming pollutants from power plants dropped slightly over the last 10 years. But across the rapidly growing South and parts of the Great Plains and Midwest, emissions during the decade rose--growing as much as one-third in some areas, according to EPA figures.
The administration has committed $2 billion to clean coal research over the next 10 years. President Bush comes from Texas, which uses more coal-fired power than any other state; Vice President Dick Cheney hails from Wyoming, the largest coal-producing state.
But power plants like the one at Fort Lonesome are only clean relative to conventional coal plants and are expensive to construct. The Florida plant emits 20 times more nitrogen oxides than a comparable plant fired by natural gas and costs three times as much to build. Moreover, a coal-burning plant, even with the cleanest technologies, poses much more of a global warming problem than a plant using natural gas or oil.
The major provision of the Clean Air Act that is aimed at controlling emissions from new power plants is the new source review rule. EPA officials say the rule has typically resulted in emissions cuts at power plants of 70% to 95%.
Air pollution control officials consider new source review to be a key to controlling power plant emissions. Weakening the rules will certainly worsen air quality in many areas of the country, said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.
Administration officials, by contrast, consider the rule bureaucratic, costly and ineffective. "New source review is a roadblock to clean-burning energy plants," said Cheney's spokeswoman, Julienna Glover-Weiss.
What the administration favors is a market-based program that would cap total emissions from power plants and allow companies to buy and sell credits to reach reduction targets. Companies that reduce more than their pollution allocation can sell to companies that produce over their limit.
Such programs are favored by free-market advocates, industry groups and many economists. Supporters say market-based programs cost less, offer businesses more options for knocking down emissions and rely on the invisible hand of the marketplace rather than the strong arm of regulatory mandate to find the most effective remedies.
Air-quality officials and environmental activists fear that the proposed market-based programs would not work. And they say the administration is already showing signs of backsliding in its enforcement of air quality regulations.
Under intense lobbying pressure from power companies, the White House earlier this year instructed the Justice Department and the EPA to review enforcement actions against companies accused of violating the Clean Air Act.
In 1999, federal officials charged that 32 coal-fired power plants in several Southern and Midwestern states had ignored a requirement that companies install advanced emission controls whenever their plants are upgraded.
The government reached a settlement with Tampa Electric Co. Two other settlements are pending with Cinergy Corp. and Virginia Power Co. But several other cases are being reconsidered, including ones against Duke Power Corp., Southern Co. and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Critics of the administration's plans also say the record of market-based approaches is mixed. On the one hand, the nation's 11-year-old program to reduce acid rain by allowing power plants to trade emissions credits is widely credited with cutting emissions and saving compliance costs. It corrals hundreds of coal-fired power plants into one market-trading block, caps the annual emissions at 9 million tons and then lets power producers swap credits to achieve the goal.
On the other hand, a similar market-based program to cut smog in Los Angeles has not worked. Called RECLAIM, it was the world's first attempt to harness market forces to tackle urban smog. Eight years after its inception, however, polluters have avoided installing controls and the state's power crisis has led to a shortage of pollution credits that has driven up compliance costs. The program has failed to cut emissions as expected, although officials are trying to salvage it.
Many environmentalists oppose market-based strategies to fight pollution. They say they are difficult to enforce, allow too much self-policing by businesses and have the potential to concentrate emissions in poor and minority communities.
A coalition of 20 environmental groups earlier this month urged EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman to suspend trading programs being considered by four states. That request came a week after a letter from the EPA's inspector general's office agreed to investigate concerns about market-based programs.
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Power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides are down nationwide over the last decade, but the reductions are not uniform. Added emissions in the South and parts of the Midwest contribute to deteriorating air quality.
Days per year exceeding 8-hour ozone limit
Average of '90-'92: 132
Average of '97-'99: 37
Average of '90-'92: 13
Average of '97-'99: 50
Average of '90-'92: 28
Average of '97-'99: 47
Average of '90-'92: 17
Average of '97-'99: 36
Average of '90-'92: 13
Average of '97-'99: 27
Average of '90-'92: 9
Average of '97-'99: 27
Average of '90-'92: 7
Average of '97-'99: 20
Average of '90-'92: 9
Average of '97-'99: 15
Average of '90-'92: 9
Average of '97-'99: 14
Average of '90-'92: 4
Average of '97-'99: 11
Ozone is in decline in Los Angeles and the Northeast, but progress against smog is lacking across much of the nation.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency