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Controversial Pollution Rule On Track, Despite White House Shift

Even as the Obama administration delighted conservatives last week by pulling back on a broad regulation to combat ozone pollution, the controversial "cross-state" rule that would also reduce smog-forming pollutants in Texas remains on track.

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As the Obama administration pulls back on a broad rule to combat ozone pollution, a different rule that would also reduce smog-forming chemicals in Texas remains on track.

To the delight of conservatives in Texas and nationwide, the White House announced on Friday that ground-level ozone levels would be reviewed in 2013 rather than tightened immediately. But the controversial “cross-state pollution” rule, which aims at tightening emissions from power plants in Texas and 26 other states, remains scheduled for implementation in January. The cross-state rule targets nitrogen oxides, an ozone precursor, as well as sulfur dioxide, which is not an ozone precursor but can also cause lung damage.

“The cross state air pollution rule is final,” Betsaida Alcantara, press secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency, which crafted the rule, said in an email.

The ozone rule would have tightened requirements for pollution from a range of emissions sources like motor vehicles and even dry-cleaners, according to David Adelman, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. The “cross-state” rule, by contrast, applies more narrowly to power plants, and does not deal with "volatile organic compounds," which like nitrogen oxides are another ozone precursor. The idea behind the "cross-state rule," said Adelman, is that "power plants are big sources and their emissions cross state lines quite readily. So in one jurisdiction you could have ozone problems where a significant source of the nitrogen oxides would be out of state."

Friday's development, in which the White House essentially overrode the EPA to delay tighter ozone standards, was sharply criticized by environmentalists nationwide. Nonetheless, “we’re going to get a lot of clean-up through the cross-state air pollution rule,” said Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club's Texas arm.

The cross-state rule requires Texas power plants to lower sulfur dioxide emissions by 46 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 7 percent compared with 2009 levels, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental agency.

But the cross-state rule has stirred huge opposition from Texas officials, who say it is onerous and takes effect too quickly. In a statement Friday, the TCEQ said that it hoped the ozone rule pullback “signals that the EPA is beginning to consider science and common sense in their decisions, and we would hope that they would apply this to other regulations such as the proposed cross-state air pollution rule.”

Last week the Texas electric grid operator reported that the cross-state rule could curtail the operations of some coal plants so severely that it could lead to rolling blackouts — an issue that carries heightened visibility as Texas comes off a scorching summer that badly stretched power supplies.

“At least two” rotating outages would have occurred this summer had the pollution rule been in place, said Warren Lasher, an official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator.

In a statement last week, the EPA said it would “look forward” to meeting with Texas grid officials for further discussion, but that Texas has an “ample range” of options for complying with the rule without threatening the electric system’s reliability. The rule will bring billions of dollars in health benefits and prevent up to 1,700 premature deaths yearly, starting in 2014, the agency says.

About 18 plants will be particularly affected, the state says. The hardest-hit plants burn lignite, a relatively dirty type of coal mined in Texas, or a combination of lignite and Powder River Basin coal, a more expensive but cleaner coal that comes from Wyoming.

The lignite-burning plants, which are built around the mines, include five owned by Luminant, the largest generator of electricity in Texas and also the top producer of lignite. Together they provide about 8,000 megawatts of energy, enough for several million homes, Luminant says. 

The company says it may have to curb power output at these plants if it cannot install scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide or make other adjustments, like importing more of the Wyoming coal, in time.

In August, Luminant formally asked the EPA to reconsider the rule and its January deadline.

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