After recently denying a permit to an enormous U.S. refinery in St. Croix, U.S Virgin Islands, which could supply petroleum products to the Northeast, President Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is denying a renewal permit to a coal-fired plant in Ohio that generates 11 percent of the state’s electricity. EPA denied the James M. Gavin plant—a 2,600-megawatt supercritical coal plant– in Gallia County permission to release coal ash into an on-site coal ash pond that was part of its normal operations since first coming on line in 1975. The plant is Ohio’s largest generator and the 8th largest coal plant in the nation.
EPA gave the facility near Cheshire 135 days to find another way to dispose of the ash. If it cannot find one, the plant may have to shutter. As is typical with the Biden administration, there is no analysis of the impact on the electric grid of the plant’s closure, nor what the impact on electricity prices would be since Biden’s goal is to make coal, oil, natural gas and electricity prices generated from those fuels very expensive. The Gavin plant is in the PJM Interconnection, which oversees the grid that supplies electricity to Ohio, 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
According to the coal industry, coal ash has not been definitively linked to any serious health problems and coal ash contamination was never detected in the groundwater near Cheshire. The EPA, however, indicated that the monitors measuring the groundwater could miss contamination because they are too far apart. According to the EPA, the groundwater monitoring around the ash pond is inadequate and the Gavin plant failed to conduct an appropriate statistical analysis of contamination data. Supposedly studies conducted by environmental groups have found trace amounts of coal ash contamination.
Coal ash regulations were finalized in the last year of the Obama Administration but were not enforced under the Trump administration where America first was the government’s energy policy, producing reliable, abundant and inexpensive energy. Earlier this year, however, the Biden Administration indicated it would revoke permission for some coal plants to release ash into unlined coal ash ponds. This is presumably part of his “whole of government” approach to climate, building on his promise to “end fossil fuels.” The Administration’s myriad actions can only be seen in this context as he has taken similar actions regarding oil and gas development and use.
Last month, EPA denied a request by the James M. Gavin Power Plant for extra time to comply with the federal coal ash rules. Barring any grid reliability problem that might justify a later deadline, the EPA indicated that no more coal ash can be released into the pond after April 12, 2023. The company that manages the facility plans to keep operating while converting to a “dry ash” handling system that complies with the federal rules.
The Gavin coal plant has already stopped placing coal combustion residuals into the Bottom Ash Pond and is expected to complete conversion of its units to dry ash handling this month. Dry ash handling generally uses air to cool coal ash for storage before commercial use or eventual disposal in a landfill. Unlike wet ash handling, it does not use water to clean out and transport ash. Landfills that receive dry coal ash should be properly lined and meet regulatory requirements in effect since 2015. The company also expects to close its bottom ash pond by September 2024.
The EPA still has not made final rulings for about 50 other coal plants that have asked for more time to comply with coal ash regulations. Plants that have sought extensions include two 1950s-era coal plants that are subsidized by Ohio ratepayers under House Bill 6: Clifty Creek and Kyger Creek. EPA issued a proposed denial on January 11 for the Clifty Creek plant—a 1,300-megawatt coal plant in Madison, Indiana. Clifty Creek officials applied for an extension until April 2023 to continue using the plant’s coal-ash basins, to give them time to construct alternative disposal systems. As with Gavin, the closure of the plant could cause increased and accelerated costs to the plant operator and could also negatively impact the stability of the electric grid and power markets. EPA has not yet issued a decision on the Kyger Creek coal plant’s extension request. The Kyger Creek Power Plant is a 1,086-megawatt coal-fired plant located south of Cheshire, Ohio in Gallia County.
Under the Biden administration, the regulatory climate is not hospitable to coal, and it is forcing economic changes to fossil fuel plants that are moving the power grid toward renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power. While coal has been and continues to be a workhorse at U.S. power plants, regulations finalized during the Obama administration made coal plants uneconomic compared to natural gas plants. Now, the Biden administration is pushing to close the remaining coal plants that produce reliable power 24/7 because of its zero carbon policy, and transition the U.S. electrical system to wind and solar power that operates only when the wind blows and the sun shines.
Europe is finding that very low wind speeds are reducing wind’s generation levels and is forcing Europe to use more natural gas and coal for generation, which is increasing rather than decreasing emissions. The Biden administration may find the same result, but have no coal plants left to produce power when needed most despite having the largest proven coal reserves in the world.