EPA, Oklahoma Clash Over Regional Haze Plan

Published February 7, 2011

Oklahoma environmental officials, consumer advocates, and environmental groups are clashing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over regional haze standards that could cause electricity prices to rise by more than 15 percent in the state.

EPA’s Regional Haze Rule requires states to implement EPA-approved plans to reduce haze at national parks and wilderness areas. EPA has authority to implement its own plan in states without plans approved by EPA.

Scrubbers vs. Natural Gas
EPA insists six coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma install expensive sulfur dioxide scrubbers to reduce haze at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has countered with a proposal for the coal power plants to switch gradually to cleaner burning natural gas. 

EPA claims Oklahoma’s plan to require a switch to natural gas power plants won’t occur quickly enough. The state proposes completion of the switch by 2026, but EPA insists any switch to natural gas must be complete by 2016. Unless Oklahoma speeds up its timetable, EPA has indicated it will require the coal power plants to install sulfur dioxide scrubbers.

Oklahoma DEQ studied the sulfur dioxide scrubber plan and determined it did not meet a cost-benefit test. The scrubbers would cost roughly $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion dollar to install, plus an additional $150 million per year in operation and maintenance costs. This would cause a 15 percent rise in electricity costs, meaning a family that currently spends $200 per month on electric bills would soon face a $230 monthly electric bill.

Oklahoma environmental officials say this is too high a cost for a modest improvement of visual clarity in a single wildlife refuge that already suffers little visual interference.

Natural Gas Advantages
Oklahoma DEQ executive director Steve Thompson told a November Oklahoma Corporation Commission meeting that natural gas “is innovative, more protective of the environment, reduces costs to electricity consumers, and uses clean-burning Oklahoma natural gas as a fuel source. Instead of causing significant negative impacts to our struggling economy, enhanced use of natural gas would have a positive effect, both environmentally and economically. Given what is at stake, EPA should give it much more serious consideration.”

The Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club environmental group and several consumer groups support the state’s plan for a gradual switch to natural gas.

“The leadership of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club would like to recognize the diligent efforts put forth by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in drafting its Regional Haze SIP [State Implementation Plan],” Robert “Bud” Scott, government affairs director for the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote in a December 13 letter to EPA.

“Available controls for natural gas electric generating facilities are substantially more cost effective and generally capture larger amounts of harmful emissions” than coal-fired power plants, Scott wrote.

EPA is expected to announce its final decision by late spring.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.