By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
A three-judge federal appeals panel denied requests by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for a full-court review of a decision upholding a federal rule designed to curb haze pollution.
Pruitt was joined by Oklahoma Gas & Electric and the Oklahoma Industrial Energy Consumers in challenging a federal implementation plan for the regional haze rule. The panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected by a 2-1 vote arguments that federal regulators overstepped their authority by supplanting parts of a more lenient state plan with stricter rules.
The panel concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency possesses the authority to review a state’s plan and “lawfully exercised that authority in rejecting it and promulgating its own” rule. The EPA’s regional haze rule requires Oklahoma Gas & Electric to upgrade its emissions-reduction technologies at power plants near Muskogee and Red Rock or switch to cleaner-burning fuels.
The rule’s goal is to reduce emissions of fine particulates, which limit visibility in national parks, and sulfur dioxide, which can harm public health. Pruitt, OG&E officials and other critics say the federal plan will drive up consumer costs for electricity.
Clean-air advocates cheered Thursday’s ruling. Whitney Pearson, an organizer of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said the order reaffirms the organization’s belief that the “EPA’s plan to reduce serious pollution levels is common sense and good for Oklahomans.” Once the plan is put into effect, Oklahomans will enjoy “cleaner air and clearer skies,” she said.
“We look forward to working with the governor, attorney general, OG&E and other stakeholders to move forward, put this litigation behind us, and chart an Oklahoma-first path to responsibly replace the coal plants with local clean energy solutions,” Pearson said. “We can build clean-energy resources like wind farms in Oklahoma, which will put millions of dollars into our rural communities and schools and create the jobs here at home.”
Pruitt, however, appeared to lack that cooperative spirit. He said he was disappointed with the court’s decision and was considering options that could include an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“We are considering our next steps in the fight to protect Oklahoma’s right to pursue its own solutions to address regional haze,” Pruitt said in a media release. “At stake is the ability of Oklahoma and other states to develop and implement state-based solutions.”
Pruitt restated his arguments against the federal plan, saying regulators exceeded their authority when they rejected the state’s plan to address regional haze. The state’s top prosecutor described the federal plan as part of the EPA’s “anti-fossil fuel agenda ... that will significantly raise utility rates for Oklahomans.”
Paul Renfrow, an OG&E spokesman, said the Oklahoma City-based public utility also was weighing its legal options, which could include an appeal to the Supreme Court. He described the circuit court panel’s order denying the request for a full hearing disappointing “for our customers.”
“The 10th Circuit’s decision makes it increasingly likely that our customers will be paying higher rates on their electric bills,” Renfrow said. Rates would increase “because of the sizable investment needed to meet the regional haze requirements mandated by the EPA’s plan,” he said.
The challenge to the federal plan initially was joined by American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which operates a third coal-fired plant targeted by the regional haze rule. The company withdrew its challenge a few weeks later after it struck a deal with the EPA that includes retirement of two coal-fired generators in Rogers County by 2026.
Renfrow said OG&E officials, while hoping their legal challenge would succeed, have been studying plans to install new emission control technology at its coal-fired power plants. He said the company would have preferred the flexibility of the state plan regarding the choice of fuels and a more lenient timetable.
According to public health experts, sulfur dioxide emissions trigger asthma attacks and cause airway constriction and other respiratory problems.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide pollution for even five minutes reportedly makes it hard for a person to breathe, and exposure to higher levels can put a person in need of emergency medical treatment.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.