Power plant at risk of premature retirement

CHEYENNE — Unit 2 of the Jim Bridger Power Plant is six weeks from violating federal air quality regulations, putting the plant at risk of premature retirement, Gov. Mark Gordon revealed Monday. 

In a strongly worded letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gordon warned that Wyoming would sue the agency over disputed pollution control measures at Bridger units 1 and 2 if the state’s alternative solution, which regulators submitted to the EPA in May 2020, is not approved within the next 60 days. 

“I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity before we have to meet in court,” he wrote. 

If an agreement is not reached, Bridger Unit 2 will be out of compliance with federal regulations after Dec. 31. Gordon intends to issue a temporary emergency suspension of the deadline, he said in the letter, allowing the plant to continue operating, legally, through April 30. 

But after that, if Unit 2 is still out of compliance, it will be required to shut down. 

The current deadline for meeting emissions standards at Unit 1 is Dec. 31, 2022. 

Coal plant emissions are the point of contention, but this debate has nothing to do with climate change. Instead, it’s about nitrogen oxides, or NOx. One of the nastier pollutants released from burning coal, NOx can cause and aggravate respiratory diseases, including asthma. It has other negative environmental impacts, too, like acid rain and haze — the latter of which has been known to obscure views at the state’s national parks. 

Gordon alleged in Monday’s letter that the EPA’s decision not to act on the state’s proposal “needlessly and recklessly imperils the employment of many Wyoming workers, threatens electricity consumers with increased energy costs, threatens to undermine the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid, undermines the integrity of the regional haze program and EPA itself, damages our cooperative relationship, and actually does greater harm to the environment — and for what, shallow talking points on the international stage?” 

But the Dec. 31, 2021 deadline has been a long time coming. 

Wyoming submitted a plan for reducing harmful emissions to the EPA in 2011. That plan, requiring existing coal plants to be retrofitted with a number of pollution controls to limit NOx output, was approved by the agency in 2014.

PacifiCorp, parent company to Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that operates the Bridger plant, installed the required controls at units 3 and 4 — which it plans to keep operating until 2037 — years ago. 

But with units 1 and 2 currently scheduled to close in 2023 for conversion to natural gas peaking facilities, PacifiCorp determined that it would be uneconomical to add costly pollution control measures for the final years of the units’ operation. 

Instead, the utility proposed an alternative plan in early 2019: It would reduce those units’ electricity output, so that NOx emissions fell below the levels that pollution control would have achieved, until their retirement. 

State regulators signed off, backed by regional EPA staff.

After a formal review, the Trump EPA appeared poised to approve the plan in November 2020. 

But it didn’t finalize the decision before President Joe Biden took office. Biden’s EPA reconsidered the proposal. 

According to Gordon’s letter, the agency alerted Wyoming in June of this year — roughly seven months before the Unit 2 compliance deadline — that it would not take any further action on the plan, and would neither approve nor deny it. 

Before Monday, negotiations over Bridger’s future had taken place in private. 

In his letter publicizing the state’s position, Gordon decried the reversal as an attack on coal and “a willful dereliction of duty to accomplish a goal that it cannot accomplish through lawful means.” 

He directed the state’s Public Service Commission, the agency that oversees public utilities, to open an investigation into the EPA’s “failure to act.” 

PacifiCorp hopes to continue operating units 1 and 2 under the state’s emissions proposal until their planned retirement and conversion, James Owen, PacifiCorp’s environmental director, told the commission during its open meeting on Tuesday. 

“Our intent is to avoid shutting down the unit, and we’ve made that known, and our [integrated resource plan] expresses our intent would be to convert the units,” Owen said. 

While PacifiCorp’s most recent integrated resource plan, released in September, references the state’s alternative emissions proposal, it says only that “discussions between EPA, Wyoming, and PacifiCorp regarding the SIP revision and regional haze compliance at Jim Bridger are ongoing.” 

It lists the Dec. 31 compliance deadline, but does not acknowledge the EPA’s new stance on the proposal. 

The Public Service Commission voted Tuesday to open an investigation into the EPA decision, citing the risk of “potential unplanned discontinuation of operations at a major power plant.” 

But according to Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, the EPA’s choice not to consider the plan acknowledges a major shortcoming of the alternative proposal. 

Wyoming’s NOx reduction plan is based on the assumption that the Bridger units currently operate at maximum capacity — but they don’t, Anderson told the Star-Tribune. 

WyoFile reported in 2019 that existing permit restrictions already limited the plant to 84% of potential capacity. Reducing acceptable NOx output to an inaccurate baseline wouldn’t have nearly the impact outlined in the proposal, Anderson said. 

In public comment submitted to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality in 2019, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club called the proposal “an illegal about-face of long-standing agency determinations requiring [pollution controls] at units 1 and 2,” and characterized the state’s conclusions as “flawed, technically deficient, and as such invalid.” 

And while Anderson believes compromise is possible, she’s worried about how the tone of the letter might affect further negotiations as the state looks to extend the units’ legal lifespans for a couple more years. 

“I think that it takes the relationship between the state and the federal government a step backwards,” she said. “And it will make it really hard for the EPA to come to the table and work with the state of Wyoming on these complicated issues.”