WyoFile Energy Report

State has fuzzy math on regional haze

There’s plenty of hot air in Wyoming’s opposition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional haze plan, and it seems our elected officials can’t see the detrimental contribution from the burning of Wyoming coal.

EPA rejected a portion of Wyoming’s implementation plan for regional haze, and instead insists that haze pollution controls be added to Wyoming coal-fired power plants on a faster schedule. That resulted in unified objection from Wyoming’s congressional delegation and its governor, all claiming that EPA’s plan adds unnecessary costs to coal-burning utilities and their ratepayers with little or no payoff in clearer or cleaner air.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Gov. Matt Mead stated the opposition’s case in a letter to Carl Daly, director of EPA Region 8’s air quality program. Mead said the additional haze cleared under EPA’s plan compared to Wyoming’s plan is “imperceptible,” therefore doesn’t justify the estimated $77 million cost difference between the two plans.

“Costs will be passed on to Wyoming rate payers. There will be no perceptible change in visibility. The main haze producer — fire — is not addressed,” Gov. Mead wrote.

First, it should be noted that the $77 million figure is Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) and the coal-burning utilities’ estimate. It was a point of concern for the National Park Service, which wrote to EPA, “In the case of Wyoming, it appears that EPA Region 8 has accepted the cost calculations provided by WY DEQ and the utilities (Pacificorp and Basin Electric) without conducting independent analysis.”

Even if Wyoming DEQ’s calculation is correct (EPA’s plan will cost $77 million more in emission control upgrades at Wyoming coal-fired power plants),  Mead should have been more clear about who would pay for it.

This excerpt comes from Gov. Mead’s press release still posted on his website:

 “I ask that the proposed rule be rejected. The increased capital cost to the combined Wyoming units will cost $77 million more under the federal plan than under the state’s plan,” Governor Mead wrote, noting that these costs will be passed on to Wyoming rate payers.

In Mead’s actual letter to Carl Daly, Mead summarizes that, “Costs will be passed on to Wyoming rate payers.”

Mead and his staff are honest and reputable, and obviously there’s no attempt to obscure the $77 million calculation. But it’s important to note that, by far, most of Wyoming’s in-state coal-fired electrical power is exported to ratepayers outside the Cowboy State.

For example, Rocky Mountain Power — Wyoming’s largest utility — operates coal-fired power plants inside and outside Wyoming, and it serves customers across a six-state region. In the past, the utility has estimated that only 16 percent of its upgrade costs to coal-fired power plants in Wyoming will actually be passed on to Wyoming ratepayers — and the majority of those rates are paid by industrial and irrigation customers. The calculation is similar for Wyoming’s other regulated coal-burning utilities.

Rocky Mountain Power’s Dave Johnston Power Plant near Glenrock. (WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Yes, EPA’s preferred path forward to clear haze from western skies would require a bigger investment for coal-burners than Gov. Mead believes is necessary. And considering that the vast majority of the investment would be made by ratepayers outside Wyoming, there’s another case to be made; when it comes to battling EPA over regional haze, it’s likely that our elected leaders are worried about preserving Wyoming’s pace of coal production slightly more than they are worried about rising utility rates for the average Wyoming family.

And given the mass amount of revenue that coal mining brings to the state, I’m sure none of our elected officials would apologize for making that a priority. But let’s be clear about what’s driving our policy.

When I contacted Gov. Mead’s policy director, Shawn Reese, this week to double-check the $77 million calculation, I also asked him about the state’s charge that EPA is double-regulating regional haze in Wyoming. The charge from the governor’s office is that by rejecting a portion of Wyoming’s implementation plan and inserting a portion of EPA’s plan, it amounts to double-regulation and creates additional reporting costs.

It’s easy to understand that complying with multiple regulatory agencies is arduous and a general pain in the neck, and an expense to boot. But it’s not out of the ordinary, especially for an industrial complex like coal-burning utilities. So I asked, just how much overlap in reporting duties and implementation has the state identified? “We don’t understand where we can coordinate or where there will be overlap,” Reese said.

As for smoke from fires doing more to obscure our western vistas than what comes out of coal-fired smokestacks? That was certainly true this summer. At this point, we have much more control over what comes out of our smokestacks than we do over wildfires.

Speaking of drought and fires.

Even here in Wyoming, behind the carbon curtain, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that July was the hottest month on record in the U.S., or that the past decade was the hottest on record, or that the U.S. is suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent history. Or if it did go unnoticed, it might have been because we were suffering the extremes that made every county in Wyoming eligible for federal drought assistance. But you won’t catch Wyoming DEQ attempting to calculate Wyoming coal’s contribution to climate change and wildfires and drought. Heck, the Wyoming Legislature once had a celebrated track record of outlawing the recognition of federal and international initiatives to curb climate change.

When it comes to EPA, it seems the Wyoming alliance of elected officials reactively portrays its efforts as fool-hardy, expensive, and devoid of justifiable health and/or environmental benefits. But the EPA plays a vital role in setting national standards so that states don’t fall into a race-to-the-bottom. It’s funny how EPA is so often regarded as prone to political influence by a state so reliant on fossil fuel production.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on August 23, 2012

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