Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has proposed subsidizing coal-fired power plants, which could allow them to operate well-beyond their economic life. This should sound alarms for communities affected by these plants’ pollution. The Center for American Progress analyzed the health impacts linked to pollution caused by the coal power plants likely to benefit from Perry’s bailout. This analysis found the rule could extend the lives of plants that have caused pollution that contributes to more than 1,400 premature deaths and nearly 23,000 asthma cases annually, according to 2014 Clean Air Task Force (CATF) data. New projections from CATF illustrate that enabling just five of these plants to continue polluting would lead to nearly 3,000 additional premature deaths in total. Secretary Perry has given short shrift to these impacts by limiting the time for public comment and denying any need for thorough environmental review. As a result, the communities continued power plant pollution will most likely harm—particularly, communities of color that already carry a disproportionate pollution burden—are the least likely to be heard.
Perry’s proposal ignores potential environmental impacts
On September 29, 2017, Perry proposed a new rule to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that would subsidize coal and nuclear plants if finalized. Initial cost estimates for Secretary Perry’s bailout indicate it would subsidize coal and nuclear plants in 30 states and the District of Columbia with a cost to ratepayers of $800 million to $3.8 billion annually. Arguing that such plants are vital to grid reliability and resilience, Secretary Perry outlined an energy crisis that his own U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) disproved in a thorough review of the nation’s electricity grid. The DOE grid study concluded that recent coal and nuclear plant retirements have resulted primarily from lower electricity demand and competition from natural gas and renewable generation and that these retirements have not diminished grid resiliency or reliability.
Although the proposal itself is vague on details and impacts, the Sierra Club analyzed the rule’s language and corresponding electricity market data, subsequently publishing a list of nearly 70 coal-fired power plants that could benefit from Perry’s bailout. Coal-fired power plants are a major source of air pollution in the form of toxic mercury and soot- and smog-forming emissions; toxic water pollution; and industrial waste from coal combustion. By extending the lives of these coal plants, Perry’s proposal would also extend their legacy of pollution and exacerbate the public health impacts on the communities near them.
At Perry’s request, the FERC expedited the proposed rule’s public comment period despite vocal opposition from stakeholders, including grid operators. Adding insult to injury, Perry’s proposal asserts that the changes is exempt from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review under existing FERC regulations. If that stands, local communities would not have an opportunity to speak out against extending the lives of dirty coal plants as they would have under a normal environmental review process.
NEPA requires the federal government to examine the potential human and environmental impacts of its actions before making a decision. NEPA applies to federal construction projects, land management plans, certain regulations, and federal approvals of grants, licenses, and permits. The NEPA review process enables local residents directly affected by the proposed federal action to provide input. Public officials must take these comments into account before deciding to approve or permit projects or make recommendations to change project plans. In this way, the NEPA process gives local voices an opportunity to provide information that federal, state, local, or tribal governments may not otherwise have and shape plans that may affect their communities. Such information may reflect social, economic, or cultural effects as well as potential impacts on public health and the environment.
Perry’s proposal could harm human health
What are the risks of silencing public input about these dirty power plants? The 70 coal plants that could benefit from Perry’s bailout include several that have caused pollution resulting in 1,436 premature deaths and 22,694 asthma cases annually, according to CAP’s analysis of CATF data regarding health effects from fine particle air pollution. Certain coal-fired power plants stand out as major contributors to local air pollution. For example, the Clean Air Task Force estimates that pollution from the Powerton Power Plant in Illinois caused 50 deaths, 78 heart attacks, 850 asthma attacks, and additional health impacts, amounting to nearly $370 million in costs in 2012. Similarly, the General James M. Gavin Power Plant in southeastern Ohio was estimated to have caused 87 deaths, 140 heart attacks, 1,400 asthma attacks, among other health impacts, reaching approximately $679 million in costs in 2012. Both could benefit from the DOE proposal to subsidize plants.
Additional analysis by the Clean Air Task Force further illustrates the potential health risks from the proposed rule. In comments submitted to the FERC rulemaking process, CATF analyzed pollution rates from five coal fired power plants that the proposed rule would prevent from retiring—as currently scheduled—before the end of 2018. It then projected pollution rates and health impacts from an increase in their electricity generation resulting from the proposed rule’s subsidy. The new analysis indicates the proposed rule would cause pollution leading to between 1,339 and 2,854 additional premature deaths and 8,429 and 17,987 additional asthma cases.
Limiting public comment and environmental review denies environmental justice
Communities living in the shadow of polluting power plants and other industrial facilities are all too often communities of color. Any decision to keep a power plant online directly affects these communities and is a matter of environmental justice.
The NEPA process—which Secretary Perry’s proposal ignores—is essential for identifying and mitigating any disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. Executive order 12898 in 1994 directed each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” The Council on Environmental Quality provided additional guidance on how to consider environmental justice as a central component of NEPA reviews. The guidance tells agencies to “consider the composition of the affected area to determine whether low-income, minority or tribal populations are present and whether there may be disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on these populations.” It also advises agencies to “develop effective public participation strategies” and “assure meaningful community representation in the process.”
Secretary Perry’s proposal fails on all counts. It fails to require review of the potential impacts of extending the lives of dirty coal plants—impacts that would fall disproportionally on those who already carry the greatest pollution burden. Moreover, it fails to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to participate and voice concerns about projects that may have life-threatening effects on their health and welfare.
Perry’s efforts to extend the lives of these dirty power plants without allowing people who live near them to voice their concerns raises the question of whose interests he serves while illustrating the importance of public input processes.
Emma Weinert is an intern for the Energy & Environment Team at the Center for American Progress. Luke H. Bassett is the Associate Director of Domestic Energy Policy, and Alison Cassady is the Managing Director and Director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center.