by conor bernstein

When Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan recently boasted that he doesn’t have to rely on any one policy or rulemaking to achieve his agenda, he turned more than a few heads. He signaled his intent to race forward on a zealous and wide-ranging regulatory program regardless of unsettled questions about the EPA’s authority to do so and absent information on the implications of such an agenda on Americans’ electricity bills or the reliability of the grid. 

Despite deep concern on Capitol Hill and in many state capitals that the EPA is overstepping its authority, even hijacking the nation’s energy policy, Administrator Regan isn’t trying to allay concerns. Rather, citing the suite of rule-makings he has coming for the coal fleet, he’s said mission creep isn’t a problem — it’s the point. 

There’s nothing remarkable or new about EPA overreach, but what is remarkable is how little acknowledgment there is from the EPA that the U.S. is facing an energy affordability and reliability crisis. The EPA is plowing ahead despite clear warnings its actions pose great danger. 

Consider the EPA’s effort to push forward on finalizing the federal rules for the disposal of coal combustion residuals (CCR) and management of CCR in landfills and impoundments, an opening salvo in EPA rules designed to pressure the coal fleet. The new rules were announced last fall and were immediately met with grave concerns about feasibility. This January, 59 power plants requested deadline extensions for compliance and it’s in these requests we begin to get a sense of the ramifications of the EPA’s agenda. 

Comments to the EPA from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), the grid operator for much of the Midwest, are particularly insightful and a telling example of how out-of-sync EPA’s approach is with on-the-ground reality for those tasked with keeping the lights on. MISO’s comments honed on just five power plants, but are startling nonetheless. MISO concluded, “the loss [due to closure] of any significant portion of the 3.1 gigawatts (GW) from the five generators considered… would push resource adequacy coverage of regional demand into dangerous territory.” 

MISO also wrote that, “there is very little excess generating capacity (or none at all) to cover demand for electricity, plus the required reserve margin, in the immediate future.” MISO found that, “loss of capacity from the generation at issue cannot be readily replaced by other resources that are currently being processed for participation in MISO’s markets.” 

MISO not only warned of grave reliability concerns from the loss of any of the five coal plants in question but went on to explain the two key reasons why. First, that replacement capacity doesn’t offer the same attributes as the resources targeted for closure, namely “flexibility and availability.” And second, that the time required to integrate new resources into MISO “far exceeds the need for immediate replacement of the resources at issue… in order to maintain grid reliability.” 

The message is abundantly clear: what EPA is asking poses an alarming danger to the reliable delivery of power, and that the agency has waded into issues it simply doesn’t fully grasp. 

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.