After years of legal battles, the Environmental Protection Agency has started the process of removing Texas from a list of states that need to comply with requirements of one of its air pollution rules.
The regulation, known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, was aimed at reducing toxic emissions from mainly coal-fired power plants that can drift into other states. The idea was that, if you have a power plant in your state that causes pollution in other states, you had to clean up the emissions from that plant.
“EPA had decided that Texas was causing two types of problems. It’s was causing too much ozone smog in other states and it was causing too much fine particles,” explained Daniel Cohan, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
But retrofitting a coal plant to “scrub” emissions and comply with the rule is a costly undertaking, and could have sped up the closure of some coal plants. Texas joined a lawsuit to fight the rule and, after a prolonged legal battle that included one visit to the Supreme Court, a lower court overturned the EPA on one part of the rule.
“The courts didn’t trust EPA’s finding that Texas was actually contributing to particles in other states,” Cohan said.
Now, the EPA has announced it will remove Texas from a list of states that need to cap that particulate pollution, the ozone rules still stand. Cohan, sees the decision as a "pragmatic," one that allows the agency to move forward in implementing the rest of the regulation. But, it was met with disappointment from some public health advocates.
“The fact is that air pollution from power plants – it kills people. So, any rule that we can get to reduce air pollution from power plants, we think, is an important step forward," said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
The full impact of removing Texas from the rule is still unknown, but could be minimal. For one thing, there is a second EPA rule, called the Regional Haze Rule, that may overlap with the cross-state rule to limit some pollution.
“There are still many power plants in Texas that are subject to the Regional Haze Rule, and those plants will have to reduce sulfur oxide pollution under that Regional Haze Rule," Shelley said.
But, the Regional Haze Rule is tied up in the courts, too.
“We’re in this odd position where we have these two major rules that, because they’ve been tied up in courts so long, we’re really waiting to see how they affect Texas power plants,” said Rice’s Cohan. “At the same time, the market is already making many of these facilities virtually obsolete or unprofitable.”
In fact, the switch from coal to renewables and natural gas in Texas has already reduced particulate pollution in the state to levels below those mandated by the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. In effect, Texas is in compliance, even though it no longer has to be, says Al Armendariz a former EPA administrator who now works at the Sierra Club.
“I think the Cross-State Air Pollution rule would have been a nice backstop in Texas to prevent any kind of backsliding and prevent emissions from going up,” he said. “At the same time, the practical impact is that we’re seeing Texas is already complying with the requirement.”
It is part of a market trend away from coal that health and environmental advocates hope continues, as the next presidential administration aims to encourage the coal industry and roll back environmental regulations.
“Whatever happens with these EPA rules, there’s a strong likelihood that many of the coal plants will shut down anyway,” said Cohan.