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FILE -- The American Electric Power Company FILE -- The American Electric Power Company's cooling tower at their Mountaineer plant is shown in New Haven, W.Va., Oct. 27, 2009. (REUTERS/Ayesha Rascoe)  

Federal court upholds EPA rule retiring coal plants

A federal court has upheld an Environmental Protection Agency mercury emissions rule responsible for forcing hundreds of coal-fired power plants to retire across the country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. upheld the EPA’s Mercury Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal and oil-fired power plants. The rule limits emissions of mercury and other air pollutants from such power plants, and the court victory has been hailed by environmentalists as a victory for public health.

“Today’s legal victory is another giant step forward on the road to cleaner, healthier air,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “The court recognized that mercury and other dangerous air toxins from coal-fired power plants are a threat to public health, and that we should all be protected from them.”

The EPA says MATS would prevent 11,000 early deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks annually. The agency says that the rule would cost $10.2 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive agency regulations to date.

“These practical and cost-effective standards will save thousands of lives each year, prevent heart and asthma attacks, while slashing emissions of the neurotoxin mercury, which can impair children’s ability to learn,” the EPA said in a statement on Tuesday.

But the coal industry argues that the rule is anything but cost-effective as MATS has played a role in shutting down about 300 coal plants across the country.

“We are disappointed that the D.C. Circuit Court reaffirmed EPA’s overreaching ways by upholding the MATS rule, which EPA estimated to be one of the most expensive regulations ever put forward,” said said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

“Unfortunately tough news like today’s ruling is nothing new to our industry” Sheehan added. “If anything, the ruling bolsters our resolve to continue pushing back against EPA overreach and protecting American consumers, who are ultimately paying the price for this costly rule.”

Recently, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative announced it was shuttering four coal-fired generators due to high compliance costs from MATS. Last year, FirstEnergy Corp. announced it was shuttering two Pennsylvania coal plants due to MATS, which would have required the company shell out $275 million for upgrades.

According to the Energy Information Administration, 60 gigawatts of coal-fired power generation will shut down by 2020, but 90 percent of these planned shutdowns will occur before 2016 — when MATS goes into full effect.

More importantly, the coal plants slated for retirement in the next decade will mostly be larger and more efficient power plants where “the average size is 50% larger than recent retirements”, according to EIA.

Utilities have warned that closing down coal plants could pose problems for the electrical if the U.S. goes through more particularly harsh winters like the one it just experienced. Coal plants played a key role in keeping the lights on when natural gas plants failed in the harsh winter weather.

Also, natural gas supply bottlenecks caused prices to jump, making it much more economical to burn coal. For example, the utility American Electric Power was running 89 percent of the coal plants it had slated for retirement next year.

“As we saw during this long winter, and especially during the polar vortex, our grid reliability is at risk,” said National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn. “One result is that many Americans right now are dealing with soaring electric utility bills sustained during the winter months.”

“More broadly, the retirement of coal power plants – due to the volume and extent of EPA rules – is making our electricity supply less diverse, less reliable and more expensive,” Quinn added.

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