New Mercury Regulations Impact Texas Coal Plants
The EPA announced Wednesday the first national standards for mercury emissions and other air pollutants. Within three to four years, coal plants will need to install new technology that would cut back the amount of mercury released into the air from smoke stacks.
“Widespread use of existing American-made technology to control these harmful emissions will prevent an estimated 17,000 premature deaths; 10,000 heart attacks each year,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.
Coal plants are the largest emitters of mercury in Texas. Texas not only burns a lot of coal to make electricity, but the type of coal burned here, low grade lignite coal, releases more mercury per unit of energy produced.
Texas has about 19 coal-fired power plants in operation. According to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund that shows the coal-fired power plant in Martin Lake, TX, run by Luminant emitted the most mercury in 2009. Though the company declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed, it sent this statement by email.
“Luminant has already made significant progress in a voluntary program to cut mercury emissions from our coal-fueled power plants. Specifically, our voluntary installation of activated carbon injection systems on all of our coal-fueled power plant units demonstrates our commitment to protect air quality and the environment well in advance of state or federal mandates. This new technology will offset 100 percent of all mercury emissions from its three new coal-fueled power plant units and reduce mercury emissions to below 2005 levels.”
The EPA predicted it would cost the entire power industry about $11 billion to become compliant with the new regulations. Jeff Holmstead is an air quality lawyer leading the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell & Giulianifor in Washington D.C. He says this is the most costly regulation the EPA has ever proposed.
“In many parts of the country there are older plants that only run during high seasons, peak load,” said Holmstead. “Because they may only run a few weeks out of the year, they don’t generate enough income.” He said a scrubber can be a multi-million dollar investment for a power company.
Some proposed coal-fired power plants such as the White Stallion coke-petroleum plant planned for the Corpus Christi area is supposed to have “activated carbon to remove mercury,” according to its website.
Ian Duncan leads the Earth Systems and Environment group at UT-Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology. He said the EPA’s regulations could eventually cost consumers, but not immediately.
“The impact is going to be mitigated by the fact that we use a lot of natural gas. And natural gas at the moment is cheap, so we might find that we produce a little less electricity from coal plants perhaps, especially while plants are being refitted,” Duncan said.
He added the business climate right now is uncertain for power companies, as new regulations are proposed, the price of natural gas remains cheap, and concerns over nuclear power arise. Duncan said it’s unclear on what types of power plants companies are interested in building.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would not comment on the mercury standards because it needs time to evaluate the more than 900 page rule. But the TCEQ did state: “It is important to note that Texas already controls mercury emissions in new power plant permits, through a case-by-case Maximum Achievable Control Technology strategy, based on the type of equipment the company is proposing and the type of coal they are proposing to use.”
The EPA said it will hold public hearings on this rule and will release official regulations by November. The dates for public hearings have not been announced.