Jewel Samad /AFP/Getty Images
Environmental activists display placards during a demonstration in front of the Environmental Protection Agency in December, urging campuses to abandon coal in favor of clean and renewable energy sources. The GOP is currently pushing for the EPA to be banned from issuing greenhouse gas regulations.
Environmental activists display placards during a demonstration in front of the Environmental Protection Agency in December, urging campuses to abandon coal in favor of clean and renewable energy sources. The GOP is currently pushing for the EPA to be banned from issuing greenhouse gas regulations. Jewel Samad /AFP/Getty Images
Bradford Plumer is associate editor of The New Republic.
In 1903, when the Fisk Generating Station in Chicago had its first steam engine turbine installed, engineers hailed the new coal-fired power plant as a marvel—"a monster in its day," as one magazine put it. But, over the years, the boxy red-brick structure has become, in the eyes of many locals, a monster of a different sort. Once perched on the outskirts of Chicago, the plant (which was rebuilt in 1959) was swallowed up by the fast-growing city and now sits in the middle of the working-class Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen.
Chicago has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, and health advocates say Fisk and its sister plant, the 86-year-old Crawford station a few miles away, only make things worse by belching up soot. "We can't say that having two power plants in the middle of the city causes high asthma rates," says Brian Urbaszewski of Chicago's Respiratory Health Association. "But, either way, you have all these people sensitive to air pollution living in a three-mile radius." One 2001 study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that fine particle pollution from Fisk and Crawford alone caused 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks, and 550 emergency room visits in Chicago each year. (The owner of the plants, Midwest Generation, says it has taken steps to reduce pollution since then.) And that's to say nothing of the toxic mercury from the plants that finds its way into rivers and lakes or the carbon-dioxide wafting out of their smokestacks and heating the planet.
These two antiquated plants have been able to persist for so long—and avoid installing modern pollution controls—thanks largely to a loophole in environmental law. When the Clean Air Act was written in 1970, the bill's author, Edmund Muskie, had exempted existing power plants from the new pollution limits—he figured the older plants would get retired soon anyway. But utilities quickly realized that it was profitable to keep these dirty, unregulated plants chugging along. In 1977, Congress tried to close the loophole by requiring older facilities to clean up as soon as they underwent major modifications, but that just led to scorched-earth haggling over what counted as "major." Today, one-third of the coal plants operating in the United States came online before the 1970 law was passed.
Over the past two years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working on a flurry of updates to the Clean Air Act that would address this problem, as well as other neglected sources of pollution. There's a regulation to mop up mercury emissions from power plants and other facilities, a rule to set limits on smog-forming compounds like sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide, and a revised standard for ground-level ozone pollution. New rules are on the way for coal-ash waste and for drawing cooling water from rivers and lakes. What's more, this year the EPA will propose standards on power plants and oil refineries to clamp down directly on the greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming. The end result is that aging power plants like Fisk and Crawford will either have to install costly new retrofits or shut down altogether. Hugh Wynne, an investment analyst who studies the utility industry for Sanford Bernstein, estimates that the mercury and smog regulations alone could force up to one-fifth of the nation's oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants to retire in the next five years, largely in the Midwest and South.
Such a shutdown would be a huge deal. If all that coal power was replaced by cleaner natural gas, greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector could fall by as much as 7 percent. Given that Congress isn't likely to pass a climate bill anytime soon, the choices that EPA officials make in the months ahead will matter greatly. "This year is going to be critical for paving a pathway for reducing carbon-dioxide pollution because of those EPA rules," says Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress. "Assuming, that is, they're not stopped."
So what could thwart the EPA? Conservatives in Congress, for one: Just about every Republican in the House and Senate favors a resolution to prevent the EPA from tackling greenhouse gases, while some members would go further and chip away at rules on toxics like mercury. But the other potential obstacle, which has received far less attention, is the Obama administration itself. Faced with a hostile political climate, how hard will the White House fight for new rules on pollution?
Read the rest of Bradford Plummer's article at The New Republic.