Coal Refuse Emissions Bill Passes House, Garners Veto Threat

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed, with bipartisan support, a bill that slackens emissions limits for power plants that burn coal refuse.

The Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment (SENSE) Act passed the House with a 231–183 vote on March 15. However, the White House has said it strongly opposes the bill (H.R. 3797) introduced last October to the house by Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.).

Coal refuse, as defined by the bill, is any byproduct of coal mining, coal cleaning, or coal preparation, and includes matrix material, clay, and other organic and inorganic material. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the nation’s power plants produced 9,532.41 GWh from waste coal in 2015—less than 1% of the nation’s total of 4,087,381.53 GWh. According to the EIA’s definition, waste coal includes anthracite culm, bituminous gob, fine coal, lignite waste, and other byproducts of previous coal processing operations.

The bill essentially provides coal refuse generators with additional sulfur dioxide allocations under emissions budgets established by the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR). It also impedes the EPA administrator from requiring stringent emission standards established by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide for coal refuse generators.

Rep. Rothfus celebrated the bill’s passage on March 15, calling it a “huge win” for Western Pennsylvania communities. “The Administration’s veto threat is a perfect example of how out of touch Washington is with the American people,” he added. “The Washington bureaucrats trying to destroy the work of the men and women in the coal refuse-to-energy industry have likely not lived next to coal refuse piles that catch fire, burn uncontrollably, spew toxic pollutants into the air, and cause acid mine drainage to leach into rivers and streams.  Shutting down these plants—which are providing a long awaited solution to this contamination and pollution—would be a disaster for local families.”

Rothfus’ office also highlighted a statement from Vincent Brisini, who is director of environmental affairs at independent power firm Olympus Power and a former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection official. Brisini’s testimony at a February 3 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power detailed how the coal-rich state has struggled to deal with coal refuse over the years. “As a resident of Cambria County, I have lived among bituminous coal refuse piles nearly all my life,” he said. “Without the bituminous coal refuse-to-energy facilities I would have never seen ‘boney’ piles disappearing from the landscape and the resulting improvements in water and air quality. These facilities provide the only holistic, permanent solution to these coal refuse piles for the communities and states in which they’re located.”

But in a statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget on March 14, the Obama administration threatened to veto the bill, saying it would “create an uneven playing field by picking winners and losers in CSAPR compliance.”

For one, it “would restrict the market-based approach currently used to allocate sulfur dioxide emission allowances issued under the CSAPR, thereby raising the costs of achieving the pollution reduction required by the rule.” And because it creates a “special market” of CSAPR allowances for generators that burn coal refuse and prohibits the trading of allowances allocated to coal refuse generators, the bill would favor coal refuse generators over other generators by giving them allowances that would otherwise have been allocated to others.

It would also “undermine” the emissions limits for hazardous acid gases from those established under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which could lead to health and environmental impacts from emissions of hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, other harmful acid gases, and sulfur dioxide, the White House said.

In a related story, on March 14 and March 15, the House also passed two bills authorizing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to extend the deadline to begin the construction of hydropower facilities at the 1964-built Clark Canyon Dam and the 1929-built Gibson Dam in Montana. The bills provide a six-year extension of the Gibson Dam’s FERC license, and a three-year extension of the FERC license for the Clark Canyon Dam.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)