EPA Finalizes Rules to Clamp Down on Pollution from Power Plants

Regulations anticipated to have major implications for the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip

By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized rules to reduce pollution associated with the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity. The new rules are anticipated to have major implications for Montana coal mines and the power plants they supply, including the state’s largest electricity generator located in Colstrip.

The EPA’s adopted rules will “protect all communities from pollution and improve public health without disrupting the delivery of reliable electricity,” according to a statement the EPA released Thursday.

“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 S. Regan said. “By developing these standards in a clear, transparent, inclusive manner, EPA is cutting pollution while ensuring that power companies can make smart investments and continue to deliver reliable electricity for all Americans.”

The rules will set strict standards for fossil fuel plants’ release of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Metals like mercury, a neurotoxin that becomes airborne when coal is burned for electricity, will also be subject to tighter regulations under the new regulations. Additionally, coal plant owners must safely close inactive coal ash ponds and clean up contamination.

All three sets of standards are expected to spur major changes for Colstrip’s owners, who have drawn fire from public health advocates critical of the plant’s lack of modern technology that could limit the public’s exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel and other materials tied to various cancers and diseases.

Environmental and public health organizations celebrated the rule’s adoption, saying that tougher regulations will go a long way toward addressing the power sector’s role in climate change and reducing illness and mortality associated with toxic materials and fine particulates. Industry groups and elected officials in Montana blasted the rule, arguing that the EPA has overstepped its authority by imposing rules that will make power production and consumption more expensive.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who last August joined 20 other attorneys general in urging the EPA not to move forward with the carbon dioxide rule, pledged to file a lawsuit to stop  “Biden’s overreaching policies and woke green agenda.”

“Since the Biden administration remains determined to shut down coal production in Montana, I will be challenging the rule in court to protect Montanans from this attack on reliable, affordable energy,” Knudsen said in an email Thursday. “Not only will this rule have a devastating impact on our economy, but wind and solar power won’t keep us warm in the winter.”

In their 2023 letter to the EPA, the attorneys general equated the draft carbon dioxide rule with the kind of “generation-shifting” proposal underlying the Clean Power Plan, a policy that was proposed by former president Barack Obama but ultimately blocked by courts

If the rules stand as written, they are expected to force coal plants to shutter within the next 15 years or make massive investments in still-developing carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Emily Grubert, an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame, told the New York Times that complying with the EPA’s directive to reduce 90% of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2039 makes it unlikely that the nation’s approximately 200 operating coal plants will be operating in 15 years.

“Practically speaking, you’re talking about adding a billion dollars of capital investment to a plant that was at end of life anyway,” she said.

NorthWestern Energy, the shareholder-owned utility that relies on Colstrip’s nearly 40-year-old plant to supply electricity to about two-thirds of Montana’s residents, released a statement saying that the standards for mercury and air toxics “will impact” the Colstrip plant.

“The EPA’s decision includes timelines and unproven technology that will increase the cost of energy service and jeopardize reliability,” NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Brian Bird said in the statement.

NorthWestern did not provide answers to Montana Free Press’ questions about the investment that would be required to bring Colstrip into compliance with the air toxics rule, though plant operator Talen told the EPA last year that complying with the draft rule could cost as much as $600 million. NorthWestern’s 2023 annual report noted upgrades to comply with CO2 and mercury rules could have a “material negative impact” on its coal plants and make the continued operation of Colstrip “uneconomic.” 

The timeline for complying with the mercury standards is three years, though a one-year extension could be granted under some circumstances. 

In January 2023, NorthWestern announced its plan to double its ownership share in Colstrip by acquiring a Washington-based utility’s stake in the plant effective January 2026.

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, expressed frustration with the new rules. In a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Rosendale said the rule “will jeopardize our economy, tank American jobs and threaten reliable power in the United States.”

In an emailed statement, Gianforte accused President Joe Biden of “trying to appease the far-left wing of his party in an election year by waging war on fossil fuels.”

“These regulations punish business and push companies into the arms of China and other countries with lower energy costs,” Gianforte continued. “While Montana embraces an all-of-the-above energy strategy, it’s time for President Biden to listen to state leaders, stop picking winners and losers, and start prioritizing American consumers and workers.”

Clint Penny, the business manager of a boilermakers union and president of the Montana Building Trades Council, expressed concern about the impacts on communities that are reliant on the high-paying jobs that Colstrip supplies. 

“As people, we evolve and change, but let’s not change so fast that we forget about the people that build the infrastructure and retire it before its useful life cycle,” Penny said.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.