Breaking News: No new coal plants without “Best Available Control Technology” for CO2

A legal bombshell has been dropped that may well stop all new coal plant permitting: The Sierra Club has won the Bonanza case at the EPA Environmental Appeals Board.

You can read the landmark ruling here (and full Sierra Club press release below):

… we remand the PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) Permit U.S. EPA Region 8 issued to Deseret Power Electric Cooperative for its proposed new waste-coal-fired electric generating unit at its existing Bonanza Power Plant. On remand, the Region shall reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in the Permit. In doing so, the Region shall develop an adequate record for its decision, including reopening the record for public comment….

The Board notes that “this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding. The Board suggests that the Region consider whether interested persons, as well as the Agency [EPA], would be better served by the Agency addressing” this issue.


I’m no lawyer, and I will link to other posts and interpretations as soon as they are online. But if this stands, it would seem to require “Best Available Control Technology” for CO2 in the EPA air permits for new coal plants or additions.

Certainly it is going to slow down the permitting of any new coal plant dramatically, until the EPA figures out the answer to the $64 billion question: What is BACT for CO2 for a coal plant? That will probably take the Obama EPA at least 12 months to decide in a rule-making process. But from my perspective it could/should/must include one or more of:

  • Co-firing with biomass — up to 25% cofiring has been demonstrated
  • Highest efficiency plants
  • Cogeneration (i.e. recycled energy)
  • (possibly even) Gasification with, yes, carbon capture and storage (CCS)

Is CCS “available”? Sure. It just ain’t cheap. We know gasification works. We know how to separate and capture CO2. And we know how to bury it in some places. But I digress.

You can read about the Bonanza Power Plant addition here:

This 86 megawatt (MW) addition would be located next to the 468 MW Bonanza Power Plant, on Bureau of Indian Affairs land. It is being built by Deseret Power Electric Cooperative; construction of the plant has been contracted to the Fluor Corporation.[1] Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense have appealed the state air permit, on the grounds that it did not consider CO2 emissions.

The Sierra Club argument was simple: In Massachusetts v. EPA, The Supreme Court ruled that CO2 an “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, and the CAA requres a BACT for “each pollutant subject to regulation under Act [Nobody loves acronyms more than the EPA, except maybe DoD].


The single most important policy measure the rich nations must embrace as soon as possible is to stop building coal plants that have no CO2 controls [see Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 4: The most urgent climate policy (and it isn’t a CO2 price). This ruling may do that for the foreseeable future. Also, it may be just the leverage the Obama administration needs to get a serious domestic climate bill passed, which is crucial to getting serious international action on climate.

After all, if the rich countries won’t adopt economic growth that doesn’t rely on new coal generation, they can’t possibly get the poor countries to do so. Fortunately, there are lots of superior, carbon free alternatives to coal, many of which are less expensive on pure economic grounds right now, and all of which are cheaper once we have a price for CO2 that accurately reflects its harm to human health and well-being (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?”).

Yes, I know, we are ultimately going to have to replace all of our existing coal plants with either CCS plants or zero carbon alternatives — preferably sooner rather than later (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al”) — but first things first.

Hey, the time to act may be today after all!

Kudos to the Sierra Club! Here is their Press Release, “Ruling: Coal Plants Must Limit C02”:

In a move that signals the start of the our clean energy future, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) ruled today EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit from new coal-fired power plants the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must go back and address their carbon dioxide emissions.

“Today’s decision opens the way for meaningful action to fight global warming and is a major step in bringing about a clean energy economy,” said Joanne Spalding, Sierra Club Senior Attorney who argued the case. “This is one more sign that we must begin repowering, refueling and rebuilding America.”

“The EAB rejected every Bush Administration excuse for failing to regulate the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. This decision gives the Obama Administration a clean slate to begin building our clean energy economy for the 21st century,” continued Spalding

The decision follows a 2007 Supreme Court ruling recognizing carbon dioxide, the principle source of global warming, is a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.

“Coal plants emit 30% of our nation’s global warming pollution. Building new coal plants without controlling their carbon emissions could wipe out all of the other efforts being undertaken by cities, states and communities across the country,” said Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign. “Everyone has a role to play and it’s time that the coal industry did its part and started living up to its clean coal rhetoric.”

The Sierra Club went before the Environmental Appeals Board in May of 2008 to request that the air permit for Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s proposed waste coal-fired power plant be overturned because it failed to require any controls on carbon dioxide pollution. Deseret Power’s 110 MW Bonanza plant would have emitted 3.37 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

“Instead of pouring good money after bad trying to fix old coal technology, investors should be looking to wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies that are going to power the economy, create jobs, and help the climate recover,” said Nilles.