Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Indiana County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(AP) Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of “immediate and devastating” consequences from the Obama administration’s push to clean up pollution from coal.
Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.
None of those dire predictions came to pass.
Instead, the massive western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.
States and the energy industry should work together to improve carbon-capturing technology to save coal-burning power plants and coal-related jobs threatened by federal clean air regulations, Gov. Tom Corbett said on Tuesday.
Speaking at a coal industry conference at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County, the Shaler Republican joined a chorus of voices complaining that environmental regulations will push coal out as an electricity source.
“If you take one energy source out of the mix, you just know the cost of electricity will go up,” Corbett told about 100 people at the Nemacolin Energy Institute gathering.
He later announced he would work with Wyoming Gov. Matthew H. Mead and other coal-producing states on research and eventually build a joint testing center for affordable emission-control technology.
The coal industry can be excused for thinking there’s a massive, organized, palm-rubbing effort to make its life difficult — the war on coal, in short.
It’s a “war” that’s been decades in the making, with few regulations actually originating with the Obama administration. Yet the current swarm of actions also underscores the extent to which the White House can influence which rules get written, enforced or buried by delays and litigation.
“It’s not a war on coal for warring on coal’s sake,” said David Spence, associate professor of law, politics and regulation at the University of Texas.
Rather, it’s kind of a perfect storm of actions that have been simmering for a long time.
“Brunner Island remains an important part of PPL’s future. The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental improvements at the plant to keep it viable for the long term,” said George Lewis, PPL’s director of corporate communications.
Brunner Island produces enough power to drive 1 million homes. But keeping it chugging along will buck a national trend and require even more investments in pollution equipment.
Toxic air pollution generated by Pennsylvania power plants represents 10 percent of the total from all U.S. power plants.
But some good news can make Pennsylvanians breathe a bit easier: From 2009 to 2010, total toxic air pollution from all sources in the state dropped by 20 percent, including a 24 percent decline in toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
On Thursday, the Natural Resources Defense Council released its second annual report, “Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate our Air and States,” which lists the 20 states that produce the most toxic pollution. Pennsylvania improved slightly in its ranking, falling from second place in 2011 (based on 2009 data) with 50.5 million pounds of total toxic emissions to third place this year (based on 2010 data) with 40.3 million pounds.
The planned closure of five coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, including the Titus Generating Station plant in Cumru Township, is a sign of a fundamental transformation in regional energy markets in which natural gas is sharing the leadership spotlight once occupied only by coal, according to top state observers.
“The economics are showing us, right now, a ‘dash-to-gas’ scenario,” said Robert F. Powelson, chairman of the state Public Utility Commission.
Patrick D. Henderson, state energy executive for Gov. Tom Corbett, said natural gas is playing a far greater role in supplying power to the regional grid than it did only a few years ago.
“We knew to anticipate coal-fired power-plant retirement in Pennsylvania,” Henderson said. “We did not know specifically those facilities were going to (close).”
AES Corp. of Arlington, Va., is selling its Ironwood plant for $304 million, PPL said.
The plant, which began operation in 2001, has a 705-megawatt capacity, or roughly enough to power 564,000 homes.
For the past four years, PPL EnergyPlus, the marketing and trading subsidiary of Allentown-based PPL, has supplied natural gas for the operation of the Ironwood plant in return for rights to its full output.
Nationwide, the electric industry is responsible for the bulk of U.S. pollution blamed for global warming, according to the data, which were released Wednesday in the government’s first public catalog of individual polluters. Power plants accounted for 72 percent of the greenhouse gases reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2010.
Specifically, the main culprit is coal, which is as cheap as it is dirty. Twenty mostly coal-fired power plants in 15 states were among the worst polluters.
Among the biggest offenders in Pennsylvania were PPL’s Brunner Island plant in York County and its Montour plant in Montour County. Together, they spewed the equivalent of 18.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas.