BACT Update: Is BACT for a Coal Plant Natural Gas?

Last week, I reported on a decision by EPA Administrator Jackson, in an appeal from a permit issued by the Kentucky Division of Air Quality, to the effect that the developer of an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plant, which converts coal to gas for combustion, had to consider use of natural gas as BACT, because the plant already had plans to use natural gas as a startup and backup fuel.

This week, Administrator Jackson went one step further – granting an objection to a permit for a traditional coal plant in Arkansas on the ground that it did not consider IGCC as BACT. As with the Kentucky decision, the issue in the Arkansas case was whether requiring IGCC would be to “redefine” the source. Also as with the Kentucky decision, the Administrator ruled that, while requiring consideration of IGCC as BACT might be to redefine the source, neither the permittee nor the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality had built a record sufficient to make that conclusion.

As David Bookbinder of the Sierra Club succinctly put it in Greenwire: "Control technology for conventional coal is IGCC and control technology for IGCC is natural gas." In short, the way to control emissions from a coal plant is to burn natural gas instead.

I think that Bookbinder is exactly right concerning the import of the two decisions. I also think that the result is nuts. Can anyone say with a straight face that they really believe that this approach is consistent with the statutory intent? As I noted last week, EPA didn’t think so when they wrote in the New Source Review Workshop Manual that

applicants proposing to construct a coal-fired electric generator, have not been required by EPA as part of a BACT analysis to consider building a natural gas-fired electric turbine although the turbine may be inherently less polluting per unit product (in this case electricity).

I also think that this is what happens when the agency ties itself into knots to reach a certain result based on statutory language written in another time for another purpose. Might there be a lesson in this for EPA’s efforts to regulate GHG utilizing existing CAA authority?