Arnold Reitze: Regional haze plan wasn’t worth fighting about

In this Sept. 8, 2015 photo, a natural gas rig pumps away in the foreground of the coal-fired Huntington Power Plant west of Huntington, Utah. A 20-year plan by Utah's largest electricity provider stipulating that it will not add pollution-control systems to its coal power plants has received criticism from some in the state who say the proposal may violate a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement and get in the way of the federal push to curb regional haze, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

On July 7, William Cosgrove opined on the recent decision of Utah’s Air Quality Board to approve Utah’s revision to the regional haze (RH) plan that is part of the state implementation plan (SIP). The RH SIP imposes requirements on certain emission sources to protect visibility in national parks and other federal lands beyond what is required to protect human health. Cosgrove wrote the Air Quality Board “shamelessly ducked its responsibility by unanimously passing a Regional Haze Plan.”

The Air Quality Board is comprised of nine members with expertise in air pollution. Four of the members, including me, have careers in the non-profit sector. The fact that the decision of the board was unanimous might indicate there are some problems with his conclusion.

The RH SIP was required to either impose a Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) requirement on the Hunter and Huntington Power Plants or develop an alternative to BART that was more effective. BART was considered to be selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology. Utah chose to develop an alternative BART. The alternative was approved by the board in 2015 for a planning period that ended in 2018. It was then submitted to EPA, which after a long delay, rejected part of the RH SIP and sent it back to Utah’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) for proof it was better than BART. However, the alternative BART requirements had already been implemented by the plant’s owner, Rocky Mountain Power.

DAQ, with the assistance of EPA, spent considerable time and money redoing the computer analysis of the proposed alternative BART proposal based on EPA’s protocol. The DAQ’s revised proposal then came to the board to approve or disapprove based on whether the RH SIP would more effectively improve visibility during the planning period ending in 2018.

Health impacts are not considered in the RH SIP. Such considerations have already been dealt with in the basic SIP, and Emery County is in compliance with all health-based requirements. The environmental community presented their own BART analysis, which raised important issues, but on balance the DAQ’s analysis seemed more compelling, particularly because DAQ’s work was done to conform to EPA’s requirements.

If the board had rejected the proposal, as Cosgrove advocates, the issue would return to the DAQ for another year of so of study and hearings for a planning period that has already ended. If the DAQ subsequently decided to require Rocky Mountain Power to install SCR, the company would likely litigate the requirement based on its contract to comply with the alternative BART requirement, and Utah could lose the lawsuit. Even if Utah prevailed, its ability to contract with the private sector in the future would be seriously compromised if the state could unilaterally disavow an agreement after the regulated community fully complied.

If the state pressed on with an effort to require SCR as BART, it would need to justify the cost. SCR would cost upward of half a billion dollars for marginal improvement in visibility. These costs, as well as the related operating costs, would be imposed on the electric power users. Rocky Mountain Power could be expected to also litigate the issue of costs, too, and it would have a reasonable chance of winning.

If, instead of installing SCR, Rocky Mountain Power decided to close the Huntington and Hunter plants, the power in the near-term would probably be replaced by electricity from coal burning plants in Wyoming, which would not benefit the environment. Moreover, closing the plants would have a devastating impact on Emery County’s economy, and there is no pending or existing program to deal with the environmental justice issues that would develop.

Rather than continuing to fight over a RH SIP for a planning period that is past, the environmental community should be focusing on the next RH planning period as well as continuing to work more broadly to phase out fossil-fueled power plants with a program that includes assistance for the rural areas of Utah that will be impacted.

Arnold Reitze

Arnold Reitze, Millcreek, is a member of the Utah Air Quality Board and a retired professor of law at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.