The Environmental Protection Agency wants to require power plants and industrial facilities to install water cooling technology that would minimize their impact on endangered species, which could lead to more power plants being shut down across the country.
The agency estimates 2.1 billion fish, crabs and shrimp are killed every year by water cooling intake structures at power plants and industrial facilities from being pinned against intake equipment or being killed by heat and chemicals.
The EPA’s new rule would require facilities using more than two million gallons of water per day — 25 percent of which must be used for cooling purposes — reduce their impact on fish and shellfish. The more water a facility uses, the more onerous the rule will be on its operations.
“EPA is making it clear that if you have cooling water intakes you have to look at the impact on aquatic life in local waterways and take steps to minimize that impact,” said Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water.
Regulatory filings show the rule would cost existing facilities $275 million per year and new facilities $297 million per year — while yielding monetized societal benefits of $33 million for existing units and $29 million new units annually.
This means the annual costs of the rule also outweigh the benefits 8-to-1 for existing industrial facilities and 10-to-1 for new industrial facilities. But the EPA says that the benefits were underestimated “substantially” because their estimate “omits important categories of benefits that EPA expects the rule will achieve, such as most of the benefits associated with fish other than commercially and recreationally harvested fish.”
Republicans have charged that the rule is just another way for the Obama administration to attack baseload power sources like coal and natural gas.
“EPA’s cooling water rule today is a clear misuse of the Endangered Species Act and could lead to the shutdown of even more power plants,” said Vitter. “Previous plant closures have obviously affected jobs, the economy, and accessibility and affordability of basic power needs, but this new rule will likely have a far greater impact than what is currently predicted by the Administration.”
Roughly 521 factories and 544 power plants fall under the rule and would be required to get permits to install costly water cooling technology that the EPA says is being used at 40 percent of industrial facilities. But even facilities with the most advanced cooling intake systems, such a closed-cycle cooling, will see more intervention by the EPA.
Why? The economics of operating closed-cycle cooling technology do not “take society’s preferences for fish protection into account” because it’s a capital intensive process that does not always operate during peak power periods.
Closed-cycle cooling recirculates water at power plants and factories, reducing water withdrawals by 95 percent. The Energy Information Administration says that many power plants built after the 1960s began reusing their water. In 2012, there were 875 cooling systems at power plants that reused water through a cooling tower or a cooling pond, 53 percent of cooling systems.
But 43 percent of power plants’ cooling systems do not reuse water, especially coal and natural gas-fired plants. There were 595 coal and gas plants in 2012 that did not reuse their cooling water — 67 percent of them were coal plants.
Environmentalists were displeased by the EPA’s new rule, saying it did not go far enough to protect fish and aquatic life.
“We are deeply disappointed,” Steve Fleischli, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, said in a statement. “This rule is not only overdue, it is weak.”
“EPA has essentially abdicated its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act and passed the buck to the states, most of which have shown they don’t have the capacity or the will to safeguard our waterways from these sources,” Fleischli said. “This rule will do little to protect America’s fisheries from the enormous impact of power plants.”
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