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‘Midnight regulations’ target power plants, and more

yosemite.jpgCranking out 11th-hour regulations has become a tradition among exiting US presidents, and despite early hopes to the contrary it looks like this year will be no different.

Topping the list in terms of energy this year is a pair of industry-friendly regulations that critics say would increase pollution from coal-fired power plants. In this week’s edition of Nature, we take a quick look at these and a few others that are moving through the system as the Bush administration prepares to hand the reigns to Barack Obama in January.

The regulations in question are technical in nature, which means the overall result is not always obvious. One of the rules being proposed would change the way power plant pollution is measured in national parks and wilderness areas. By shifting from an annual emissions calculation to a short-term maximum measured over the course of hours, for instance, power plant managers can increase their energy output and effectively put more emissions into the air over the course of a year.

Another rule would use the same principle to make it easier for utilities to upgrade their power plants without triggering a requirement to install sulphur dioxide scrubbers and other modern pollution controls. Congress exempted many older power plants from when it passed the Clean Air Act, but utilities lose that exemption if they increase emissions as a result of power plant upgrades.

This provision was intended as a way to gradually bring older plants into compliance with modern standards, but utilities say it discourages basic changes that would effectively make these plants more efficient. The Bush administration’s rule would change the requirement such that emissions are measured on an hourly basis as opposed to an annual basis. In practice, this would allow utilities to make upgrades that enable the plants to run more often – which means annual emissions would go up.

The issue has been floating around for years. In fact a similar argument was put forth and rejected (at least in part) by the US Supreme Court in 2007. And it’s quite likely that this rule will be challenged as well, either by the Obama administration or environmentalists, if in fact the Bush administration gets it finalized in the coming months.

Jeff Tollefson

Photo: Pollution rolling into Yosemite National Park from Central Valley, California / Flickr user ArtBrom, Creative Commons license


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