COMMENTARY: Is Delaware a victim of upwind air pollution?

One of our important First Amendment rights is the ability to petition the federal government to correct a wrong. Delaware’s Air Quality Division petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2016 to force upwind coal-fired power plants to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions. Nitrogen dioxide acts as a catalyst in the creation of unhealthy ground level ozone, especially on hot summer days.

Delaware government officials, including Gov. Carney and Sen. Carper, are complaining mightily the EPA has denied the petition. It is a hot topic as public comments on the denial were due July 23.

We are downwind of the three Pennsylvania and one West Virginia power plants that are the subject of the petition. Nitrogen dioxide is one of six primary air pollutants with national standards for maximum ambient levels measured at monitoring stations. Delaware’s only station in Wilmington measured ambient levels 84 percent below the maximum allowed in 2017.

The Air Quality Division petitioned to have three of the power plants cease operation within 90 days if they didn’t prove they were using pollution control equipment all the time during the May to September ozone season. The petition called for the closest facility, Brunner Island in York, Pa., to spend $600 million on new pollution control equipment.

As always, there are two sides to the story. For example, officials blame the EPA under President Trump for delaying a response to the petition. The truth is the EPA under President Obama ignored the petition. More recently the EPA has been working with Pennsylvania and West Virginia on required state implementation plans to reduce pollution under a “Good Neighbor” policy, and on a science-based study on Delaware’s claims.

The results of those EPA efforts are impressive. Pennsylvania power plants reduced emissions 60 percent from 2016 to 2017 alone, and 80 percent from the base level used in the petition using information from the US Energy Information Agency! The Brunner Island power plant invested $100 million to add low-emission natural gas as a flexible fuel alternative to coal, reduced emissions 75 percent in 2017, and reduced electricity cost. Being able to burn coal or cheaper natural gas adds to the regions electric grid resiliency.

The EPA study determined Delaware’s air quality will meet national standards shortly, and that pollution control equipment is being used consistently.

There were other reasons the petition was denied. A petition must meet certain standards of proof. The petition used out-of-date data from 2011, and used computer modeling provided by the anti-coal Sierra Club. There was no effort to correlate the model claims to actual air quality monitoring data. The petition acknowledged changes were coming, including the fuel plans at Brunner Island, but provided no proof of likely future harm. In other words, the petition was half baked, and the EPA properly denied the petition.

Finally, politicians in Delaware have made wild claims that 90 percent of Delaware’s air pollution comes from upwind power plants. This is patently false, and both Sen. Carper and DNREC did not respond to questions as to the source data for their claims.

Modeling for Delmarva Power indicated only 8 percent of emissions came from out-of-state power plants with two-thirds coming from in-state motor vehicles, and the rest from other in-state sources using the same 2011 data as the DNREC petitions. Given the 80 percent emissions reduction from upwind power plants, currently as little as 1 percent of emissions are coming from out-of-state. We need to stop crying wolf, and acknowledge the incredible improvements that have been made!

David T. Stevenson is director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute, a 501(c)(3) research and education organization founded in 2008 to be a “counter voice to the prevailing wisdom in Dover that raising taxes (or not allowing them to sunset) and increasing spending, regulations, and central planning through state agencies were going to solve Delaware’s fiscal and quality of life problems.”

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