AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) -- Environmental groups praised and power generators bashed a proposed federal environmental regulation on Tuesday aimed at improving visibility in national parks and wilderness areas in Texas and surrounding states.
Both sides agreed that the “BART” rule, which would require 14 older power plants across the state to implement “best available retrofit technology” to reduce haze-causing emissions, would force the closure of many of the sulfur dioxide-spewing plants. Nine of them are coal-fired and have struggled to remain profitable as the price of natural gas and renewable energy has plummeted. They also contribute to hazy conditions in wilderness areas as far away as Oklahoma because of how far fine particulate matter can travel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to finalize the rule by the end of the summer under a 2012 consent decree struck with environmental groups.
But lawyers for Swepco Electric Power and Luminant, which both operate coal-fired power plants, said at a public hearing Tuesday that the rule would be overly punitive to the plants while having minimal impact on visibility in national parks such as Big Bend in West Texas. They also criticized the EPA for posting the rule and technical details only a week before the Austin hearing, giving them little time to analyze precise impacts.
“This rule will result in billions of dollars in compliance costs, force the shut down of of numerous power plants and jeopardize electric reliability in this state,” said Michael Nasi, general counsel for the group Balanced Energy For Texas, which includes several coal interests.
The potential impact a bevy of coal plant retirements would have on the state's electric grid has been a point of debate among industry officials.
Regulators, too, have expressed concern about the impact that several retiring coal plants could have on the electric grid, but renewable energy groups and some experts say Texas — the nation's No. 1 natural gas and wind energy producer — is well equipped to handle any transition, no matter how rapid.
While the EPA is supposed to finalize the BART rule by September, its fate under a Trump administration remains to be seen. The process was set in motion after Texas partly won a lawsuit over another federal clean air regulation, opening the door for the EPA to ensure the state meets other clean air requirements. (The Texas Attorney General's office has said it is reviewing the proposed BART rule.)
Texas has declined to craft an implementation plan, however, and the EPA didn’t move to impose a federal plan, so environmental groups sued.
Representatives from the Sierra Club on Tuesday thanked the EPA for pursuing a rule they described as long overdue and minimal. Texas is one of only two states that hasn’t met all related requirements.
Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the kind of technology the BART rule would require plants to install is already used at more than 700 units throughout the United States. And University of Texas molecular cell biologist Mona Mehdy emphasized that the emissions in question — sulfur dioxide and particulate matter — affect not only visibility in national parks but also the health of humans and plants.
“What is being proposed today, unfortunately, is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done to address the serious pollution problems [created] by burning coal,” said Craig Nazor, a member of the conservation committee of the Sierra Club.
Disclosure: The Sierra Club has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.