Would EPA air-pollution rules lead to massive blackouts? Feds weigh in.

Energy-industry groups said that new EPA air-pollution rules could threaten the reliability of the American power grid. The Energy Department countered that claim with its own report Thursday.

Brian Nicholson/Deseret News/AP/File
Smog and haze hover over Salt Lake City in this file photo. The EPA is moving forward on two new air-pollution rules, angering energy industry groups.

The results of a Department of Energy study suggest that two new federal pollution rules would not result in widespread blackouts or compromise the American electricity grid, federal officials announced Thursday.

The energy industry has claimed that the rules would result in a dangerous number of power plants being closed or having to come offline for pollution-control updates. The result, according to an industry report, would be a huge cut in power generation that threatened the reliability of the grid.  

Modeling done in what the DOE calls a "stress test," however, found that overall resources would be adequate, with the exception of a small amount of additional natural-gas power generation needed in Texas. While "resource adequacy would not be compromised," the retirements of power plants and other factors "could lead to grid-reliability challenges" in some localized instances, the report stated.

The back and forth is the latest round in the battle between the Obama administration and pro-business Republicans in Congress over whether new environmental regulations are "job killers." Industry officials have warned that a wave of power-plant closures could not only weaken the power grid but also cost thousands of jobs.

One of the flash points the DOE sought to address Thursday is the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule – the Environmental Protection Agency's revision of a Bush-era rule that was overturned by the courts. It reduces permissible smokestack emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in Eastern states and goes into effect Jan. 1. It allows a three-year transition.

The other rule at issue is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, which requires power-plant operators to filter out mercury and other poisons. It is set to be unveiled later this month.

“Our review, combined with several other studies, demonstrate that new EPA rules – which will provide extensive public health protections from an array of harmful pollutants – should not create resource-adequacy issues," said David Sandalow, the assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at DOE, in a statement.

To head off criticism, the DOE crafted its stress test to be more stringent than the EPA standards. By that measure, plant closures and retrofits would proceed safely and along EPA expectations, so long as regulators and utility-industry owners took "prompt action," the DOE found.

Critics say the new DOE study is not broad enough.

"DOE’s new review limited itself only to resource adequacy, which DOE admits is just one component of reliability assessment," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, in a statement. Issues regarding retirements and transmission were ignored, he said.

In 2010, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an industry group that oversees grid reliability, forecast that proposed federal pollution rules would cut nearly in half the amount of projected reserve energy available to the US power grid in 2018.

But the DOE says its study was comprehensive and supersedes the NERC study, especially since some of the proposed pollution rules that NERC included in its study have since been delayed by the EPA.

"EPA has done this for the last 40 years," said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. "We make sure the lights stay on."

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