High-price oil brings coal and EPA together

Before 1979 the US coal industry could point to two major reasons why the switch to coal-fired power plants has been so slow: price and environmental regulations.

In 1979 the first problem was solved when the price of oil shot past the $30 -a-barrel mark, making it cheaper to run a new coal-fired power plant than to keep operating an existing oil-fired plant.

This year, the coal industry thinks it might be able to take care of the second problem. For this is the year a president came into office on a promise to slash regulations, including many that have been blamed for slowing the development of coal-fired electricity. This is also the year when Congress is peopled by a more conservative group than it has seen since the Depression. And this is the year when that Congress debates the renewal of the 1970 Clean Air Act and its 1977 amendments.

The coning together of these factors has helped restore battle lines that place the coal industry and its customers on one side against an increasingly apprehensive environmentalist movement. The new realities recently moved a member of one environmentalist organization to observe that groups such as his have "no influence with the government" these days.

How much influence these groups actually do have in Washington will be seen in the next few weeks as Congress takes up the Clean Air Act, and a new administrator takes over at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Anne McGill Gorsuch, President Reagan's nominee to head the EPA, is a Denver lawyer and former Colorado legislator who has already indicated she will carry out in her agency the President's plans to rein in the nation's regulators. And since Mr. Reagan has often pointed to the EPA as the kind of "overregulating" body he wants to curb, Mrs. Gorsuch is expected to make noticeable changes at the agency.

One thing that could be changed in this way, he asserted, would be for the EPA to accept the coal and utility industries' recommendation that "averaging times" for power plant emissions be changed. At present, all power plants started after 1978 must install complex chemical scrubbers that remove 90 percent of the sulfur and solid particles that result from burning coal. While slight variations from this standard are permitted, they must meet it as an average in a 24-hour period. Averaging these emissions over a 30-day period, the utilities argue, would make allowances for changes in wind and weather, as well as slight variations in the sulfur content of steam coal.

But Mr. Doniger of the NRDC says moving to a 30-day average would permit heavier pollution levels on some days of that period and tie up scarce measuring equipment at one site for a whole month.

While the utility industry argues that conservation and current high interest rates prevents it from making the investment in new, clean, coal-fired power plants, it acknowledges the investments will have to come eventually.

"Sure, we're concerned," said Thomas Graff, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. "We see a whole series of efforts under way to loosen environmental regulations." These efforts, Mr. Graff said, are aimed at easing air pollution controls on coal burning, control strip mining and land reclamation, and coal miner health and safety regulations.

At the same time, Mr. Graff some encouraging "countertrends" that could work in favor of strong environmental controls. Among these are "interstate and international pressure to limit the environmental effects of pollution." In other words, while a coal-burning power plant may be acceptable to the residents of its state who are receiving its electricity, that plant may not be acceptable to a state or country lying downwind of that plant and receiving not its electricity, but just its emissions.

While some of the emissions were controlled under the original 1970 Clean Air Act, many more, particularly sulfur dioxide, were brought under stiffer standards in the 1977 amendments to the act. While the 1977 standards are "not perfect, they are ones we can live with," says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Committee (NRDC) in Washington. A change in these later standards, he believes, could become increasingly serious as more and more US electricity is generated with coal.

But groups such as these are up against what appears to be a growing antiregulatory mood in the country.

"Environmental rules have made it very difficult for us to use coal," asserts Harold R. Logan, senior vice-president in charge of the natural resources group at W.r. Grace & Co. "Our ability to use the nation's coal has been severely restricted by the Clean Air Act." That act, he believes, "will be softened" by Congress this year.

Mr. Logan disputes environmentalists' assertions that conservation and poor management are responsible for utilities not having enough money to invest in antipollution equipment. "In some cases it costs over $2 billion to install scrubbing equipment" to meet the 1977 standards, he claimed.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, meeting present antipollution standards add $115 to $165 per kilowatt to the cost of a new power plant. The basic plant costs over $800 per kilowatt to build, so the cost of pollution control equipment can add 15 to 20 percent to the original cost.

While many coal and utility executives are hopeful for a return to the easier standards of the original 1970 law, they are also hopeful the new EPA administrator will change some of the regulations the agency has implemented in the past to enforce the laws.

"It is the regulations under the [Clean Air] Act that are causing the problems," says Joseph Mullan, a vice-president of the National Coal Association , a trade group representing many coal operators. "The regulations need changing, not the basic Clean Air Act. A lot can be done administratively now.

One thing that could be changed in this way, he asserted, would be for the EPA to accept the coal and utility industries' recommendation that "averaging times" for power plant emissions be changed. At present, all power plants started after 1978 must install complex chemical scrubbers that remove 90 percent of the sulfur and solid particles that result from burning coal. While slight variations from this standard are permitted, they must meet it as an average in a 24-hour period. Averaging these emissions over a 30-day period, the utilities argue, would make allowances for changes in wind and weather, as well as slight variations in the sulfur content of steam coal.

But Mr. Doniger of the NRDC says moving to a 30-day average would permit heavier pollution levels on some days of that period and tie up scarce measuring equipment at one site for a whole month.

While the utility industry argues that conservation and current high interest rates prevents it from making the investment in new, clean, coal-fired power plants, it acknowledges the investment will have to come eventually.

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