January 05, 2012

US power plant emissions standards delayed

Court rules limits on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide output need further review, as Keystone pipeline stand-off continues

By BusinessGreen staff

Tough new emissions limits for US power plants were delayed just hours before they were due to come into force following a ruling by a Federal appeals court.

The regulations would have introduced new limits on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide for 27 states from the beginning of this month under rules formulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July.

The EPA estimates the regulations will prevent 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 heart attacks and 400,000 cases of asthma, amounting to around $280bn a year in health benefits.

However, the limits were hotly contested by a number of influential US utilities and industrial groups, which claimed the introduction date did not allow enough time to install pollution-controlling equipment, would drive up energy prices and force some plants to shut down.

Texas, along with 14 other states, launched a legal challenge to the rules, with Texan officials alleging the EPA included the state in its final regulations without allowing it to provide input on how it would be affected. They also claimed the agency used inaccurate assumptions about Texas' electricity grid when developing the regulations.

Both utilities and states have now won at least a temporary reprieve after the court granted a delay to the introduction of the new rules pending further court review on Friday, a decision both the EPA and green campaigners criticised.

"The EPA firmly believes that when the court does weigh the merits of the rule it will ultimately be upheld," the agency said in a statement.

"Today's judicial decision temporarily halts implementation of life-saving clean air protections for 240 million Americans pending a full review of the facts and law," added Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "The pollution reductions at stake are some of the most important clean air protections for children, families and communities across the Eastern half of the United States."

However, the delay was welcomed by Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, who claimed the decision "is a prudent one that now gives the court time to review the regulation and its burdensome effects on Texas".

The delay will come as unwelcome news for the Obama administration, which is facing intense pressure from green businesses and environmental groups following a series of delays to air pollution regulations and the president's decision to put off a ruling on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline to transport oil extracted from Canada's tar sands 1,700 miles to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

The president had hoped to delay any decision on the controversial project until after this year's presidential election, but he must now make a decision on the $7bn project in less than 60 days after Republicans successfully included an expedited timeline for the ruling as part of a bill to extend payroll tax cuts signed just before Christmas.

The State Department has warned that the short timeframe means the government will have to reject the proposal as it will not have time to assess all the necessary evidence.

Any rejection of the proposed project would be hailed as a major victory for green groups, which not only fear the potential for leaks from the pipeline, but have also warned it would lead to increased demand for oil from Canada's carbon-intensive tar sands.

However, the decision could have a significant political impact for Obama, with Republicans and a fired-up Donald Trump calling for the pipeline to be approved in order to create jobs and enhance US energy security.

Significantly, Democrat-supporting unions have also called for the pipeline to be approved, arguing it would create thousands of jobs in an ailing economy.


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