EPA official: agency will reply to power plant rule before deadline

A top Environmental Protection Agency official Tuesday rejected concerns from a coalition of utilities and states including Texas that the agency doesn’t have enough time to respond to public comments on an upcoming power-plant toxics rule in time for its scheduled finalization in December.

Twenty-five states and some utilities are asking a federal court to delay final issuance of the rule from late this year to Nov. 16, 2012, saying the current deadline of late this year “provides too little time for EPA to meaningfully analyze and address” nearly 1 million public comments, many expressing concerns about the rule’s impact on electricity supplies and rates.

In testimony before a House committee, EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe said most of the comments were positive and only 22,000 comments of the 1 million were unique.

“We have read every one of those comments, and we will be replying to every one of those comments,” Perciasepe said, addressing a question raised by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

Texans have expressed concerns over the so-called Utility MACT rule, which would require fossil-fuel-powered electric generating units at more than 500 power plants to sharply cut toxic air emissions such as mercury and acid gases. Utilities would have three or four years to comply. The court motion, which includes Texas, is led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican.

Among the other claims the suit makes is that the EPA needs more time to assess cumulative impacts of other upcoming EPA rules, and concerns the rule could force power-plant retirements that threaten electric reliability and raise electricity rates. Texas has said the EPA “ignored the effects of local transmission constraints when considering the impact of generating plant retirements on electric reliability,” according to the court petition.

The state of Texas seeks to block a separate EPA power-plant rule over concerns it didn’t get enough chance to comment. Known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, it will require power plants in Texas and 26 other states to reduce smog- and soot-forming pollutants that can cross state lines starting Jan. 1, 2012.

The House passed a Republican-fronted bill in September to delay both rules. EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy recently said the agency would push forward with both of them.

The allegation that the EPA needs more time stemmed from a court agreement between the agency and environmental groups that had complained the EPA failed to issue a rule by a legal deadline. The court decree required the EPA to propose a rule by March 16 and finalize it eight months later on Nov. 16. The agency has since postponed the rule’s scheduled finalization until Dec. 16.

Perciasepe said EPA is already 21 years late in addressing mercury from power plants under the Clean Air Act, which “obviously flies in the face that we’re going too fast.” A court tossed out a George W. Bush-era proposed rule for mercury from power plants for not following the law and sent the rule back to the EPA to correct.

“We are in the situation now in this administration of being guided by the judicial branch toward the end that we’re now aiming at,” Perciasepe said.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who is part of the suit, told the panel he’s concerned the EPA is rushing a rule that could cause electricity rates to go up by double-digit percentages, hurting businesses and especially the poor.

“That’s the people you’re going to hurt first, and that’s the people you’re going hurt the most,” Cuccinelli said.

The EPA has denied allegations the rule could cause reliability problems or steep electricity-rate increases. “Many of the studies which have dire predictions” are based on assumptions exaggerating what is actually in the rule, Perciasepe said, adding he predicted the rule would add a net 9,000 jobs.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said a strong majority of coal-fired power plants already comply with one or more of the emissions requirements of the proposed rule. He said many plants that don’t comply are old and will likely retire in the coming years anyway.