Tired of waiting around while Congress dithers and the earth warms, progressive members of the Chicago City Council, regulators in the Obama administration, and environmental advocates are taking their own steps to clamp down on dirty coal plants.
If elected officials want to reduce global warming pollution and improve public health, there are few better options available than cleaning up coal-fired power plants. A recent report (PDF) -- compiled by Ceres, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and multiple power companies -- found that power plants were responsible for 19 percent of U.S. nitrogen oxides emissions, 66 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 72 percent of toxic mercury emissions, and almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. These gases lead to soot and smog and trap heat in the environment. Nonetheless, the nation's utility companies still generate a whopping 48 percent of their power directly from coal.
The U.S. Senate could approve a comprehensive climate package this year, one that included a hard emissions cap on the utility sector or the entire economy, and quickly improve its ability to protect the public from these environmental toxins. Even with the BP oil spill dominating headlines, the odds are long that Senate Democrats could muster enough support to pass a strong piece of legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is cobbling together a bill now, one that sources on Capitol Hill say will likely include weak clean-energy provisions (including a Renewable Energy Standard less robust than the law in Illinois) but might omit any cap on carbon emissions. What's worse, it's not clear that the watered-down package could even garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Tired of waiting around while Congress dithers and the earth warms, progressive members of the Chicago City Council, regulators in the Obama administration, and environmental advocates both locally and nationally are taking their own steps to clamp down on these dirty coal plants.
In Chicago, Ald. Joe Moore is pushing ahead with his Clean Power ordinance, which would force coal plant operators within the city limits to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 50 percent and soot-producing particulates by 90 percent within the next four years. Midwest Generation is the key target of this bill; the company's two Chicago-based coal-fired power plants, located in the dense neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village, have spewed 45,000 tons of pollution into the city's air in the past three years alone. At a rally this morning in the shadows of the Pilsen plant, Moore and the national leaders from both the Sierra Club and Greenpeace spoke about the importance of the legislation:
The public health hazards these coal plant create are intense. A 2001 Harvard study estimated that the emissions from those two sites alone cause 41 premature deaths and 550 emergency room visits annually (via ailments like asthma, heart disease, and cancer). Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago talked to us about these very problems:
So far, the Chicago Clean Power Coalition has garnered 13 co-sponsors for their ordinance. (Alds. Toni Preckwinkle, Gene Shulter, Sharon Denise Dixon, and Scott Waguespack all joined Moore at today's press conference.) Moore says he hopes the bill will be granted a hearing this fall, but it was shifted from the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection, and Public Utilities to the Rules Committee, where Chairman Dick Mell has given the North Sider no indication that he's willing to release it anytime soon.
Local community groups are working to pressure Alds. Rick Munoz (22nd Ward) and Danny Solis (25th Ward), who represent the wards in which the plants are located, and urge other aldermen to join the fight. The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization is planning a series of protests and rallies on the topic while the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) has already launched a petition drive to build support for Moore's bill.
Munoz says that the coalition is yet to convince him that the plants themselves are the cause of his constituents' respiratory health problems. Much like he did when a similar bill was introduced in 2003, Solis has avoided the media and community residents when it comes to this topic. Both aldermen have accepted significant campaign contributions from Midwest Generation since 2001.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also eying the issue of coal plant pollution. Just last week, the agency issued a proposed rule that would require utilities, by 2014, to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 71 percent from 2005 levels and nitrogen oxide emissions by 52 percent. To reach that target, old coal-fired power plants -- many of which were built mid-century and were grandfathered in under the original Clean Air Act -- would need to upgrade their pollution controls. In Illinois, there are more than a dozen of these clunkers that are still operational. (See update below)
If successful, the EPA projects that the plan could prevent up to 36,000 premature deaths a year while bringing monetary benefits of at least $120 billion a year. In other words, it's a no-brainer.
While the EPA rule would require utilities to take action sooner than the Chicago ordinance does, the dual efforts are fairly congruent. For one, the federal change doesn't ensure that individual plants like the two in Chicago will be cleaned up. That's because the EPA, so long as each state keeps its total coal pollution below a set emissions limit, will permit officials to engage in limited trading of pollution credits. "Some plants could clean up far away from Chicago neighborhoods," says Urbaszwski, "and this plant could continue to operate for many more years." If the Chicago ordinance is approved, residents will know for sure that the air close to their homes will be made safer.
It's also a possibility that Sen. Reid will exempt utility companies from a slew of new EPA rules (including this coal provision) if they drop their opposition to a utility sector cap-and-trade system. Indeed, he held talks with utility executives on that issue yesterday. This development would be a huge disaster from a public policy perspective. "The new Clean Air Act regulations," writes Grist's Dave Roberts, "are going to have bigger, faster, and more substantial effects on the power sector than any watered-down utility-only cap-and-trade system." If it happens, the Clean Power ordinance will fill a crucial regulatory gap.
Michael Brune, national executive director of the Sierra Club, told reporters today that his organization "will stay here until this fight is done." It might be a while, but momentum for cleaning up these coal plants is certainly growing.
UPDATE (4:20 p.m.): Laurel Kroack, the Chief Bureau of Air with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says she is still reviewing the so-called "Transport Rule" to see how it would specifically impact Illinois' existing rules and agreements. From her email response:
My staff and I have not had sufficient time to compare the proposed rule to Illinois' existing transport rule (based on the federal Clean Air Interstate Rule, or CAIR, that will be eventually be replaced by this rule), or the subsequent agreements we reached with Illinois' three major power plant systems. While those agreements did not place a firm cap on each plant or system, they did require emission reductions that went well beyond CAIR, and required those reductions earlier as well.