Thursday, July 1, 1999

Up In Smoke

Congress’ failure to control emissions from coal power plants

View and Download our report here: Up In Smoke

Electricity generation from old, heavily-polluting coal-fired power plants rose 15.8 percent nationwide between 1992 and 1998, an increase big enough to power all the industries, businesses and homes in the state of California for a year. This jump, which was spurred in large part by loopholes in the Clean Air Act and the deregulation of the wholesale electric power market, threatens to erode completely the steps that have been taken to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants. If not for this huge increase in generation from coal-fired power plants the air would be much cleaner today.

The environmental consequences of our continued reliance on coal-fired power plants are alarming. Compared to 1992, increased electricity generation at coal-burning power plants produced 755,000 tons of nitrogen oxide pollution in 1998, that would otherwise not have been emitted. This is the same amount of smog-forming pollution emitted each year by nearly 37 million cars. In addition, the increase in power generation from these plants is responsible for 298 million tons of carbon dioxide in 1998, the principal cause of global warming. This is an amount equal to the carbon dioxide emitted per year by nearly 44 million cars.

Several factors are encouraging the trend toward increased use of old, polluting coal plants. The Clean Air Act grandfathers pollution from power plants planned or constructed before 1977, allowing them to pollute up to ten times more than new facilities. The Clean Air Act also allows all power plants, regardless of age, to emit unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide and the toxic metal mercury. As a result, power plants are the largest industrial emitters of these pollutants.

These clean air loopholes give older, heavily-polluting plants a competitive edge over cleaner, modern power sources. Congress fueled this advantage in 1992 by deregulating the wholesale power market without equalizing environmental standards for all power plants. Wholesale power is the electricity that utilities sell to each other. Deregulation of the wholesale power market helped increase the demand for power from existing coal-fired facilities, while simultaneously discouraging the construction of new, cleaner power plants. Retail deregulation is likely to compound this effect unless accompanied by strong environmental standards.

View and Download our report here: Up In Smoke

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