The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week updated its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) to accommodate four struggling coal plants across Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The plants all burn low-quality coal refuse — waste abandoned from years of mining and burning coal in the states. Under the Obama-era MATS standards, these plants did not meet acid gas hazardous air pollutant emissions standards, but on April 9, the EPA issued a final rule creating a subcategory for those plants.
"This seems like a relatively low stakes act, in terms of the actual effect it will have on the environment," David Spence, University of Texas at Austin school of law chair and professor of business, government and society told Utility Dive. The plants themselves are small and a necessary part of the reclamation process across those states, says a coal refuse industry group. "It seems like it's been framed ... to score some political points in Pennsylvania," said Spence.
Coal plants across the U.S. are struggling to stay economically viable as they face rapid pushout from lower cost, lower emission power sources such as natural gas and renewable energy. President Trump has centered his energy policy in part on saving the fuel, and his administration has loosened a number of environmental standards to reduce regulatory burdens on industry.
"While fixing this technical issue proved too complex or insignificant for the Obama-Biden Administration, President Trump has made clear that using environmental regulations to put our energy industry or rural communities out of business is not acceptable," said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release announcing the rule change.
This particular rule is not likely to have a major environmental impact, said Spence, because it affects so few plants. And these particular coal-fired plants actually provide environmental cleanup services to a region burdened by hundreds of millions of tons of coal waste, Jaret Gibbons, executive director of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association (ARIPPA), a group that represents the coal refuse-to-energy industry across West Virginia and Pennsylvania, told Utility Dive.
"We try to view these as more as a reclamation facility actually than a power plant," he said. "The energy that we create is really funneled back into helping to do this environmental remediation."
More than 5,000 abandoned mines exist across Pennsylvania that were never reclaimed, totaling between 200 million and 8 billion cubic yards of waste, according to ARIPPA. One remediation solution is burning that waste into energy.
That method became economically viable in the late 1970s when Congress passed the Public Utilities Regulatory Act (PURPA), which sought to diversify the country’s electric resource portfolio. Under that law, alternative sources, such as burning coal refuse mixed with limestone, became economically practical.
Since 1987, more than 212 million tons of coal refuse have been removed in Pennsylvania alone. The coal ash left over from burning this refuse has cement-like characteristics because it's been mixed with the limestone and so is used as part of the reclamation process, mixed with rejected refuse to cover the waste sites.
However, along with much of the U.S. coal fleet, the economics of these plants are beginning to decline. Two other plants that would have also qualified under for this new MATS subcategory ceased operations before the rule was in place, largely due to economic challenges, Gibbons said.
Without EPA’s rule change, two of the four plants would have likely shuttered by the end of May, he said. But the plants' struggles exceed just regulatory limitations and the declining economic viability of coal — transportation costs have also risen over the years as the refuse piles have depleted, furthering the distance between the facilities and their fuel source.
"They're now competing in the wholesale energy market and they just weren't built to compete. Particularly in today's energy environment," said Gibbons. The next focus of ARIPPA is keeping the plants viable through state regulations.
Pennsylvania in 2016 enacted the Coal Refuse Energy and Reclamation Tax Credit, which provides a $4 credit per ton of coal refuse converted to energy. Now, the state is looking to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but it has still set aside a carve out for the waste facilities in its proposal to join the market-based emissions reduction program, "understanding that it’s important to make sure that these facilities are able to continue to operate financially," said Gibbons.