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Study says new federal rules could mean cleaner air with fewer coal plants

| Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 9:37 a.m.

A group of university researchers on Tuesday promoted stricter federal laws governing carbon emissions from power plants as environmental advocates argued that a new state rule doesn't do enough to limit air pollution.

“Why would we not go for the best protection available?” Pittsburgh Councilman Corey O'Connor asked during a gathering of advocates at Washington's Landing before a hearing on the proposed state standards for emissions of ozone-creating substances.

The university study and the complaints from environmental groups addressed different laws but mostly targeted coal-fired power plants, which generate about 40 percent of the nation's electricity.

The Environmental Protection Agency on June 2 expects to release a draft of its first-ever carbon emission limits for greenhouse gases from existing power plants, and many energy sector leaders say those could harm the industry and endanger the power grid.

“The electric power sector has been under tremendous regulatory strain,” said Jacob Smeltz, president of the Electric Power Generation Association in Harrisburg. Cheap natural gas from shale, expensive mandates and other environmental regulations have forced dozens of coal plants to close, which leaders say increased electricity prices and instability of the grid.

The industry, regulators, political leaders and environmental groups are waiting to see whether the EPA allows states flexibility in meeting emissions standards and whether it imposes rules covering activity “outside the fence” of power plants, which likely will bring legal challenges.

The study by Syracuse and Harvard universities found the strictest potential rule from the EPA that includes more than just limiting carbon emissions could improve air quality greatly in Pennsylvania and surrounding states by cutting other pollutants. That approach requires “a shift toward cleaner sources,” or closing more coal plants.

Smeltz and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection argue for allowing states flexibility in reaching whatever standard the EPA sets.

“If the EPA takes the approach that they will set a target or guideline and then says to the states, ‘You can go forward and figure out how to achieve that,' then Pennsylvania will be in a position to manage its path forward,” Smeltz said.

Such flexibility in setting minimum rules for controlling other emissions has environmentalists upset with DEP.

The agency took testimony at the hearing on its plan to set a federally mandated minimum to control nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds from major plants. Critics complained that the proposal fails because it does not require the use of “selective catalytic reduction,” or SCR, units that many coal-fired plants installed to scrub emissions.

“It's critical to turn on that technology,” said Valessa Souter-Kline, Western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture.

Smeltz said many plants use the devices to meet federal ozone rules.

Tom Schuster, senior state representative for the Sierra Club, said part of the DEP proposal would allow some plants to release more pollution than they do now.

The DEP said it would listen to concerns but believes the rule will cut pollution.

“As proposed, the allowable emission rates will be lower than current allowable rates, and certain (electrical generation plant) owners and operators will need to optimize their current operations to reduce their allowable NOx emissions in order to comply,” said department spokeswoman Morgan Wagner.

David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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