AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas environmentalists are cheering new federal standards announced Wednesday that will force coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions and toxic pollutants or shut down. Power industry leaders, however, said the pricey changes could lead to layoffs and undo strain on the state's grid.
Texas, which has 19 coal-fired power plants — more than any other state — and plans to build nine more, is among the few states still adding coal-fired plants. It also releases more air pollutants than any other state.
The new standards have an estimated price tag of $9.6 billion, ranking them among the most expensive in the Environmental Protection Agency's history. The new rules were unveiled in Washington by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
"This is big. Texans shouldn't be living with the health risks of mercury and other pollutants," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of the consumer activist group Public Citizen.
"The only thing more shocking than the large amounts of toxic chemicals released into the air each year by coal and oil fired power plants is the fact that these emissions have been allowed for so many years," added Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
According to Levin's group, Texas is the nation's top power plant mercury polluter, with its coal-fired power plants emitting 16.9 percent of the total U.S. mercury air emissions for 2010. The Department of State Health Services has issued fish consumption advisories for 300,000 acres of Texas lakes, according to advocacy group Environment Texas.
American Electric Power, the parent company of AEP Texas, has already spent $7 billion to reduce emissions since 1990 in the 11 states it serves, said Gary Gibbs, AEP Texas' manager of environmental and governmental affairs.
He said the company isn't opposing the new EPA regulations, but rather the time frame. Under the new rules, companies are given three years to decrease emissions of mercury and other toxins, and can apply for a fourth year to install equipment.
Gibbs also said the latest rules are especially costly because they come on the heels of EPA regulations released this summer that require states to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, both of which mostly come from coal-fired power plants.
"Very extensive rules are being used that require us to spend a lot of money and make a lot of retrofits in a fairly short period of time," he said.
An Associated Press survey of 55 power producers nationwide found that more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states would retire because of the regulation issued Wednesday and the previous rule aimed at reducing pollution downwind from power plants. One of those, Gibbs said, is the Welsh coal power plant near Pittsburgh, Texas, which is projected to shutdown in December 2014. Its 44 employees would be laid off.
In all, American Electric Power may have 600 layoffs across 11 states due to both sets of new regulations, Gibbs said.
Texas has filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the downwind EPA regulations. Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, often denounces the federal agency as a job killer.
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman in Perry's state office, said both Wednesday's regulations and those from this summer were "a continuation of the Obama Administration's assault on traditional American energy sources and the good American jobs they support."
She said the latest round of regulations "will inevitably result in power plant closures, increased costs of electricity, and reduced electricity reliability for American businesses and families, with little to no direct benefit to the environment."
Smith disagreed, saying the industry has known for two decades that mercury would eventually be regulated.
"It's not worth retrofitting a 30- to 40-year-old facility," he said. "But most of them will make the retrofits and continue to operate much more cleanly."
Gibbs, the AEP Texas official, said complying with the new rules could mean idling so many plants for repairs that meeting the state's power needs may get tougher.
"This last summer, without any of these challenges, we were barely able to keep the lights on here in Texas," he said. "So, if you're trying to schedule a significant portion of your power plants to be down ... there could be some real hiccups."