Electricity Daily

A Publication of The Electricity Journal

Volume 8, Number 70 Monday, April 14, 1997

E-Mail: electric@electricity-online.com

Commentary: Little Brown Half Truths

What's wrong with the following sentence? "There are no dirty power plants, and Ohio emissions are polluting Boston." This is contradictory, of course. So are a lot of statements coming out of the ozone transport war, where the Ozone Transport Assessment Group is developing its final recommendations. Half-truth and over-statement seem to be the name of the game as far as the various interest groups are concerned.

Latest case-in-point are two contradictory reports from the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), a coal-industry backed group, and the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), made up of state air regulators in the region. CEED says "One common myth and misconception is that the United States allows `dirty' power plants to operate, which, in turn, has created many air quality problems." So apparently power plants, especially those in the Midwest, do not contribute to air quality problems such as the widespread nonattainment of the federal ozone standard in the Northeast.

On the other hand, NESCAUM concludes, "The industrial Midwest is a region of significant power plant NOx emissions relative to the Northeast. Analysis by OTAG has demonstrated an impact from transported ozone out of a compact region of NOx emission sources in the industrial Midwest into the Northeast. [Therefore] NOx reductions in the industrial Midwest will be particularly beneficial to the Northeast in attaining federal air quality standards."

Who's right? Probably both and neither. CEED's point is that all power plants are controlled by the states so that federal air quality standards will be met in a given state, which is true. What CEED does not say, however, is that these state plans do not consider the effects of transport from such plants into other states. So a plant that is clean as far as one state is concerned, may be dirty to another.

In addition, there is a fairly large group of older, Midwestern coal-fired power plants that are dirty by any sensible definition. Federal policy since passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act has been to try to create pressure to close these plants, but so far nothing has really worked. Whether the 1990 amendments will do the job is still--pun intended--up in the air.

Likewise it is true, as NESCAUM claims, that there is evidence of NOx and ozone transport from the Midwest to the Northeast. But the OTAG analysis also shows: (1) that the effect on attainment in the Northeast is small compared to the effect of local sources, (2) that there is no way to tell where in particular these emissions will come from when ozone levels happen to be high, and (3) that the number of possible sources outside of the Northeast is so large that the cost to control them all, on the chance some of them might have an effect in the Northeast, is enormous.

NESCAUM's conclusion, like CEED's, is therefore overstated. Stuff that comes out of the stacks from Midwestern power plants sometimes makes it to the Northeast when climatic and atmospheric conditions are right. But the effect is apparently small and probably intermittent. So what is to be done? That's what OTAG has to decide in the next month or so, beginning at its upcoming meeting in Atlanta.

It's in the interest of everyone involved--including the folks who have to breathe the air and pay the costs of control--that adversaries in these disputes not resort to overstatement, and try to maintain a modicum of intellectual honesty. Is that too much to ask?

--David Wojick

The Electricity Daily

Publisher: Robert O. Marritz

Editor: Kennedy Maize

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