The EPA's "Slide Rule of Law"

Fox Lake Power Plant has been listed as an electrical generating plant to be closed down by the EPA ostensibly due to it being ‘dirty’ and not complying with new rules generated by the EPA administrator uber-radical Lisa Jackson.  In my last post I questioned why this small rural Minnesota power plant being placed on the list because it doesn’t even burn coal and hasn’t since 1998.  It seems the EPA, as administered by the Obama administration, is using a kind of “slide rule of law” in determining what plants should close and which remain open.  Instead of adhering to a historically American version that demands all people to be treated equally before the law, Lisa Jackson and President Obama view some populations as more equal than others.

How is Fox Lake being treated in comparison to other plants serving other populations?  Is there a political calculation being used instead of a scientific standard?  These questions arise because it seems rather bizarre a natural gas fired power plant would be closed for coal-burning reasons.  It has been suggested the reasons are Fox Lake still has a coal burning boiler on the premises and an ash pond, though that pond isn’t polluting.  Following these standards, let’s look at two other power plants and see how they are treated.

I looked into the power plants that generate electricity for the Twin Cities Metro power grid.  The entire metropolitan area is served by several power plants, two within the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  One, in St. Paul, is called the High Bridge Power Plant.  The other in Minneapolis is the Riverside Power Plant.  Other plants also feed the Twin Cities Zone of the grid including a plant called Sherco (Sherburne Power Plant).

Riverside Power Plant was converted to burning natural gas, in 2009.  It is five times the size of Fox Lake and serves the dark blue inner city.  If we consider the fact it once was a coal-fired plant, we’d have to conclude it spewed poisonous gases far more copious that little Fox Lake did, and for eleven years longer.  Yet, Riverside isn’t on the EPA’s shut down list.  According to an EPA filing, the Riverside Generation Plant is now 100% gas-fired but “Unit #8 is currently idle, is not producing ash, and is not expected to operate on coal again before it is converted to gas.”  This document was sent on March26, 2009 and there is no reason to believe the coal-fired boiler was removed since them.  The pond was dredged and going to be removed.  However, the ash had to go somewhere so its existence is an issue.

So why isn’t Riverside being shut down?  It burned coal until April 2009, according to Xcel Energy’s website.  It has a coal-fired boiler on site.  In fact, it lists coal-fired boiler Unit #7 as being used as a secondary steam generating unit from the exhaust from the gas-fired units.  Sure, it’s not burning coal but the mere existence of a coal-burning unit at Fox Lake was considered enough to shut it down.

If Riverside were to be shut down, the city of Minneapolis would be starved of electricity.  The plants in the surrounding areas would be hard pressed to fill the void.  Yet, Riverside and Fox Lake fit the same criteria.  They simply serve different populations, one urban and dark blue, the other rural and red.

Next, if we look a little to the north of the Twin Cities, we find a far more stark comparison to Fox Lake.  Up in Becker Minnesota is a plant called Sherco.  Sherco supplies power for the northern and western parts of the metropolitan area grid.  Becker is in a conservative part of the state, but it serves a population that is blue as well.  Sherco is the polar opposite of Fox Lake, yet it isn’t being shut down either.

Sherburne Power Plant is enormous, generating 2400 megawatts of power, five times the amount of electricity as Riverside and 24 times that of Fox Lake.  It’s a coal-fired plant with state of the art scrubbers to keep pollution at a minimum.  However, Sherco isn’t on the EPA’s list, even though it burns coal and has enormous ash ponds, one which leaked in 2007, according to EPA filings.

Sherco was even listed as one of America’s ‘dirtiest’ power plants by the Environmental Integrity Project in 2007.  It was listed in the top twenty producers of mercury and thirteenth biggest producer of that evil, toxic gas carbon dioxide.  It spews out sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides, yet curiously it isn’t on the EPA’s list.  Why would such a filthy polluter get away with all this terrible energy production while meek little Fox Lake gets padlocked?

Well, Sherburne Power Plant is the big dog that fuels business and homes for most of the Twin Cities area.  In fact, if you add up all the other electrical generating plants throughout the Twin Cities, only then do they match the power generated by Sherco.  Almost half of the electricity used by the Twin Cities area comes from the coal-burning Sherco plant.  If that plant were to convert to natural gas, it would burn as much as 80% of all of Minnesota customers use now.  It’s a big plant and important in keeping the Twin Cities’ lights on.

But, according to the EPA, it is a dirty, polluting plant.  So, why isn’t Sherco getting shut down and leaving Fox Lake alone?

In a word:  political calculations.

Shutting down such a plant would be the death of the Twin Cities economy and howls of public protest would shout down any argument to the contrary.  The plant is the heart and soul of the economic engine of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.  So, the EPA had to get out their slide rule to factor in the political considerations.

Fox Lake is little and rural. Sherco is enormous and serves a highly populated area.  Even though Fox Lake’s ‘transgressions’ pale in comparison to Sherco, one is shuttered, the other ignored.

This is not an argument for shutting down Sherco or any power plant for that matter.  It is the use of political considerations while making public policy that should trouble us.  The people of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa shouldn’t be treated differently than people of the Twin Cities, regardless of political power.  The EPA should be generating rules and regulations that can be implemented regardless of population served.  If the rules promulgated do irreparable damage to a large group, it will do so to a small group, though with less of a political impact.

This is just plain wrong.  It doesn’t fit our strict standard of a law impacting everyone equally.  It creates a sliding scale of harm compared to cost.  Regulations should treat all players the same.  One group doesn’t get a pass while another is punished for the same offense.  The Obama administration doesn’t care about such considerations.  Lisa Jackson gets out her slide rule and calculates harm and political risk, and makes a determination.  That’s the rule of man, and not of law.  We should not tolerate it.

Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com

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