Texas emissions linked to hundreds of early deaths — study

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Texas’ rejection of an Obama-era plan to require new sulfur dioxide controls on coal-fired power plants represented a “missed opportunity” to improve air quality and public health, Rice University researchers conclude in a new analysis.

The analysis links emissions from those eight plants to hundreds of yearly premature deaths. While several have closed this year, those still operating were associated with about 300 annual premature deaths, researchers found.

None of those plants earned a net profit in 2016, the paper says. Given their shaky financial health, the draft EPA plan unveiled in late 2016 would likely have prompted most of them to close or convert to natural gas, “yielding substantial benefits for climate, air quality and health beyond the stated purpose of reducing regional haze,” the paper said.

Instead, Texas regulators, with a signoff from the Trump EPA, last year substituted a cap-and-trade system. “That doesn’t mean the plants will get worse,” Dan Cohan, a Rice environmental engineering professor and the lead author, said in a news release yesterday. “It just means the plants that should have been forced to clean up or close down have gotten a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The paper was published online earlier this month in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.

The regional haze program, dating back to 1999 in its current form, aims to restore natural visibility to 156 national parks and wilderness areas by 2064.

Under the Obama administration, the program became a potent tool for compelling power companies to retrofit older coal-fired plants with new curbs on emissions of nitrogen oxides and SO2. Both contribute to the formation of tiny fine particulates, which the analysis blames for almost all of the premature deaths.

But the Obama-era approach prompted protests of federal overreach from Texas and other Republican-leaning states. Under President Trump, EPA has either rolled back or delayed implementation of haze-reduction plans for several states.

The stakes have been particularly high in Texas, whose power sector has traditionally been the nation’s dirtiest. In recent years, Texas electricity plants have released more than twice as much sulfur dioxide as second-ranked Missouri, while NOx releases were 24 percent above those of runner-up Indiana, according to EPA and U.S. Energy Information Administration data cited in the analysis.

After environmental groups charged that Texas’ initial attempt to resort to a cap-and-trade system amounted to an illegal “bait and switch,” EPA conceded earlier this year that some aspects could benefit from additional public feedback. In August, Region 6 Administrator Anne Idsal signed off on a new draft rule that could lead to the launch of the emissions trading program by early next year (Greenwire, Aug. 24).