Coal-fired utilities seeking more time to comply with the Obama administration’s clean-air rules are invoking a rare statutory tool that grants companies more time if the country’s national security is at risk.
Edison Electric Institute, the trade group representing 70 percent of the U.S. power industry, is urging President Obama to issue an executive order under the Clean Air Act that exempts a company from any Environmental Protection Agency rule for two years “if the President determines that the technology to implement such standard is not available and that it is in the national security interests of the United States to do so,” as the law states. This provision also states that the exemption “may be extended for 1 or more additional periods.”
Industry sources said that the provision has never been used.
On Dec. 16, the EPA is expected to finalize a controversial rule that aims to slash 90 percent of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. All utilities would be required to comply by 2015. Because coal is the dirtiest fuel used to generate electricity, coal-intensive utilities like American Electric Power and Southern Company would be hit the hardest.
EEI’s reasoning for invoking the national-security clause goes like this: The compliance time frame —primarily for the mercury standard—could force some power plants to shut down, triggering brownouts and blackouts. There could be shortages in areas with military bases, making it a national-security issue.
“It is widely understood, most recently in discussions about the importance of cybersecurity in our electricity infrastructure and the importance of national security and defense facilities having secure, reliable electric service, that the provision of reliable, cost-effective electricity is critical for national security,” EEI stated in comments submitted to EPA.
An industry source said such a request “would be so rare” because the proof threshold is so high. Still, at least one company is already eyeing this exemption.
“There is a coal-fired plant that is scheduled to be shut down that is currently providing electrical power to a series of military installations on our Atlantic shoreline,” said former Sen. John Warner, R-Va. (Warner is a consultant on both national-security and energy issues at Hogan Lovells.) The company, which Warner declined to identify, is hoping “the president will issue his executive order simultaneous with the EPA rule” on Dec. 16.
Separately, EEI is asking EPA to give all companies four years instead of three to comply. That means some companies could get up to at least six years to become compliant.
Lobbyists for clean-burning utilities say it’s just another delay tactic by coal companies. Some national-security experts question the connection coal utilities are trying to make.
“It baffles me that they would assume national-security planners would be caught blindsided by an EPA rule that makes coal-fired power plants go offline,” said Will Rogers, an energy and national-security expert at the Center for a New American Security.
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