Environmenalists' Distortion of New Source Review Reform

There are many facets to the New Source Review (NSR) debate, all of which environmental groups distort, obfuscate, and confuse blithely and with abandon. One argument propagated by these groups is that NSR reform will allow so-called “grandfathered” power plants to continue to pollute at will.

The Sierra Club, for example, says that in 1977, a “deal” was cut, in which existing facilities “only had to install pollution controls when they ‘modified’ their factories.” This rather vague formulation suggests that, absent modification, such facilities faced no other pollution-control constraints. This is, to put it charitably, nonsense. Power plants are, and indeed have been for some time, subject to a myriad of stringent federal clean air regulations in addition to NSR, including, most importantly, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (the newest incarnation of which goes into effect next year) and the 1990 Acid Rain Program.

To assert that the Bush Administration’s NSR reforms, which have been in the works for a decade, and which have support from all across the political spectrum, will result in dirtier air and more pollution is simply not true. Even if NSR were eliminated entirely, power plants would continue to reduce emissions under the law, as they have been doing for years (and, incidentally, if environmental groups stopped opposing it, the President’s Clear Skies Initiative would bring about even greater emissions reductions, and over a shorter time frame, than under the existing Clean Air Act).

The following exchange, from a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee NSR field hearing in 2000, illustrates the point rather succinctly:

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio): “Earlier today I was talking to someone and trying to get an understanding of what we’re talking about here. And there is some understanding that when the Clean Air Act went into effect that we grandfathered in the pollution that was already being generated at the time, and that nothing has been done since that time to modify the facilities over that period. I’d like you to comment about even though some of the old facilities have been grandfathered, are they still spewing out the same emissions that were there when they were originally grandfathered? I would like you to comment on that.”

Joe Bynum, Tennessee Valley Authority: “Absolutely not. In fact, that is a common misperception. As was discussed before, there are national ambient air quality standards, and we have to meet those national ambient air quality standards and those are met with modifications and met by the existing power plants that we have that have been so-called grandfathered. The Clean Air Act of 1990 which, through the acid rain portion, required additional reductions. Those were done with these fossil plants. Literally every plant in our system has had to do some type of change as far as scrubbers–all the way from scrubbers on some units down to fuel switches. But they all have been required to change some mode of operation in order to meet the new–not only the national air ambient quality standards but the acid rain legislation that was placed on top of that. So these facilities have not been exempt from that. In fact, these are the facilities that we have made the adjustments to that have been able to meet those requirements. We’ve reduced our SO2 by–or will have reduced it by 80 percent. By 2005 we will have reduced our NOx by 70 to 75 percent in the same timeframe on these units.”