Coal power plants must reduce pollution under new federal rules

The entrance to the San Miguel Electric Cooperative coal-burning power plant in Atascosa County on April 26, 2019. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Recommended Videos

Coal-fueled power plants including some in Texas will have to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions and toxic metal pollution and handle coal ash waste more safely under new rules announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency finalized four rules meant to protect people’s health and lower the power industry’s contribution to climate change, according to an EPA statement. But the rules will force the owners of coal plants to spend money to meet the rules while facing increasing competition from new clean energy sources.

“Today, EPA is proud to make good on the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision to tackle climate change and to protect all communities from pollution in our air, water, and in our neighborhoods,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Environmental regulators said the rules provide clear timelines for power companies to plan for providing reliable power while reducing dangerous emissions. But power companies and industry groups said the new rules would only add to what they’ve criticized as an electricity reliability problem caused by rising demand and an increasing number of clean power generators.

Industry groups said the change will be significant at a time when they believe more gas-fueled power is needed.

NRG said in a statement that, in Texas, the costs to comply with the additional EPA rules will likely be passed on to consumers because the state’s electric grid operator “has been reluctant to allow large power plants to retire.”

In a written statement, Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, said the message from EPA to polluting power plants was clear: “It’s time to clean up or shut down.”

On the main electricity grid in Texas, coal-fired power plants produced 12% of energy during the first three months of this year, while natural gas plants contributed roughly 40% and wind and solar produced about 37% of the grid’s power.

Last month, solar power produced more electricity on the Texas grid than coal for the first time, according to researchers at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Coal-fueled plants are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector, according to the EPA. Thirteen coal plants were still operating in Texas in 2023.

Last year was also the hottest ever recorded in Texas as climate change continues to drive temperatures higher. Earlier this year, the largest wildfire in state history scorched the Panhandle, fueled by unusually hot, dry weather that is made more likely by climate change.

One of the new EPA rules will require existing coal-fueled plants and new gas-fueled plants to restrict how much carbon pollution they emit. The federal agency expects the rule will lead to a reduction of 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon pollution through 2047 — equal to the annual emissions of 328 million gasoline cars.

Another rule will require power plants that burn lignite, which is low-quality coal, to reduce the amount of mercury they emit. And all coal plants will have a reduced emissions limit for toxic metals.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the rules allow plant operators either to invest in making their plants cleaner or move to cleaner energy sources.

“None of these rules require retirement, right?” Reed said. “They’re all about making these power plants cleaner.”

Tickets are on sale now for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin Sept. 5-7. Get your TribFest tickets before May 1 and save big!

Recommended Videos