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Time to Modernize Aging Power Plants and Environmental Laws

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of EM Magazine, a publication of the Air & Waste Management Association (A&WMA; To obtain copies and reprints, please ​contact A&WMA directly at 1-412-232-3444.


Under the U.S. Clean Air Act – passed in 1970 and amended in 1977 and 1990 with overwhelming bipartisan support – electric power companies have developed and deployed innovative pollution control technologies to reduce emissions that contribute to a variety of health and environmental concerns. There is strong evidence that the Act has delivered significant health and economic benefits.

Despite these successes, some of the Act’s mandates remain unfulfilled and the bevy of new regulations facing industry today is largely a result of delays and litigation on rulemakings dictated years ago under the Act. We don’t question the need to further reduce power plant emissions, but see lower cost opportunities to achieve those benefits through a revision of the Clean Air Act.

Implementation of the Clean Air Act has revealed important lessons about what works and what doesn’t. Short-comings that would benefit from a revamping of the law include:

  • piecemeal regulations that may not lead to optimal outcomes and instead create redundancy, as the rest of the fleet is brought up to modern standards;
  • questions about state vs. federal roles and opportunities for streamlining;
  • a lack of flexibility to utilize proven lower cost policy options;
  • perverse incentives, such as for inefficient, aging facilities to linger on past their expected useful lives and avoid the pollution controls employed at modern facilities;
  • unaddressed cumulative health impacts and complex equity issues that the current statute is ill-equipped to address;
  • continued uncertainty about greenhouse gas (GHG) control that impacts investment decisions and increases the potential for poor choices and, ultimately, higher costs;
  • a seemingly endless cycle of proposals, litigation, remands and re-proposals under the Act that postpones air quality benefits, creates investment uncertainty and delays, often drives up costs, and punishes companies that make good faith efforts to comply.

We recognize the political difficulties of a legislative overhaul of the Clean Air Act. Nevertheless, it is time to begin a deliberate, rigorous and constructive discussion to explore whether there are achievable solutions that guarantee greater public health benefits at lower cost.

2011-10-01 00:00:00
Air & Waste Management Association

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