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TUCKED inside Trump administration’s plan to ease carbon dioxide limits is a change that could breathe new life into scores of aging coal power plants.

Experts say the shift could also unleash additional tens of thousands of tonnes of nitrogen oxide emissions into the air each year.

The proposal would permit upgrades to old power plants without triggering an existing legal requirement to install costly pollution control systems at the same time. The upgrades could extend the lives of those plants by making them more reliable or cheaper to run.

For coal power plant owners, “this proposal seems to want to let them have their cake and eat it, too: to improve their efficiency, run more often and not trigger” the requirements, said Andres Restrepo, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club.

More than a third of American coal-fired units lack modern controls to pare smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, according to a Bloomberg News review of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.

All told, at least 33 per cent of electricity generated by burning coal last year was not subjected to advanced pollution controls, according to EPA data.

For years, owners of those aging facilities have faced a major challenge: the plants might benefit from equipment replacements and upgrades that would make them more reliable and less costly to run—and better able to compete with natural gas-fired units.

Yet, any change that would bolster nitrogen oxide emissions by 40 tonnes a year would also trigger requirements to install modern controls to keep those pollutants at bay.

President Donald Trump’s EPA is offering a revision as part of its proposal to replace an Obama administration regulation slashing carbon dioxide emissions across the nation’s electric grid with modest requirements for efficiency upgrades at individual power plants.

At issue is the federal government’s so-called New Source Review programme, which allows power plants, refineries, factories and other industrial facilities to keep running with existing pollution-control equipment—even if it has become outdated—so the systems don’t constantly need upgrades.

Under the New Source Review programme, requirements for better pollution-control systems are triggered whenever the sites undergo construction, renovations or some operational changes expected to significantly boost annual emissions.

The Trump administration’s proposed changes would make it harder to trigger the requirement by adding an additional test: insisting that emissions also go up on a short-term, hourly basis in addition to the annual surge.

“That’s a test designed to never be triggered,” said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defence Council. “This has been the longstanding dream of coal power plant lawyers and lobbyists dating to at least the late ‘70s.”

Supporters say the change would give plant owners the freedom to improve plants without fear of pollution-control requirements that could be too costly to justify.

Triggering New Source Review “in the past could cause the plant to be shut down,” said Jay Lehr, science director with the conservative Heartland Institute.

Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum told reporters Tuesday that the short-term, rate-based test also aligns the New Source Review programme with other EPA standards.

The shift aims “to further encourage efficiency improvements at existing power plants,” and “will result in significant reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and traditional air pollutants,” the EPA said in an emailed statement.

It’s not clear how many coal power plant owners might take advantage of the opening to improve their facilities, amid stiff competition from cheap natural gas and with no hint of price relief on the horizon.

The Trump administration proposal isn’t changing American Electric Power Co’s plans to invest in renewable power, natural gas and advanced technologies, said spokeswoman Melissa McHenry.

Tom Fanning, chief executive of Southern Co, said Tuesday the utility doesn’t plan to upgrade its existing coal-fired units or build new ones.

“At this time, there is limited but real interest in investing in existing coal generation in the US,” said Stephen Munro, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Potential acquirers have identified specific plants where selling coal-fired power can produce attractive returns.”

The effect of the regulatory change would depend heavily on the price of natural gas, the chief competitor to coal power, said Brian Potts, an energy and environmental lawyer and partner at Perkins Coie. “If gas prices increase and coal gets back in the money,” Potts said, “this could be a big deal.”

Bloomberg/The Washington Post Service

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 27th, 2018