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Federal, state officials spar over Bridger

CASPER — On unit 2 of the Jim Bridger power plant, Wyoming isn’t taking no for an answer.

State leaders and operating utility Rocky Mountain Power have doubled down on their commitment to resolving a dispute over pollution controls, and keeping the unit open past its impending April compliance deadline, after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this past week that it would propose disapproving the state’s alternative plan.

The rejection wasn’t exactly surprising, according to Randall Luthi, Gov. Mark Gordon’s chief energy advisor. While the Trump EPA indicated that it would approve the plan — which would limit the unit’s electricity output to circumvent installing a costly technology shortly before its 2024 retirement — the agency failed to issue a final decision. The Biden EPA notified the state in June that it did not intend to approve the plan and would instead take no further action.

Five months passed. Then, six weeks before the unit’s Dec. 31 deadline, Gordon sent a letter to EPA administrator Michael Regan, threatening to sue unless the plan was approved. The letter’s final line: “I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity before we have to meet in court.”

The agency now appears poised to reject the plan outright. Wyoming’s elected officials condemned the announcement — and the regulators behind it.

Gordon declared the move “a disappointing reflection of a federal agency acting in bad faith.” Sen. John Barrasso called it “pure political theater that puts the future of Wyoming’s energy workers at risk.” Sen. Cynthia Lummis said it was “nothing but hostile to America’s domestic energy industry and the Wyoming way of life.”

Lummis stalled confirmation of a Biden EPA administrator in retaliation, and vowed to keep doing so, E&E News reported Friday.

Legal action is still on the table, Luthi said, but the state hopes it won’t come to that. Before the EPA decision can be finalized, it must be published in the Federal Register, initiating a 30-day public comment period that could sway the agency’s judgement. Negotiations will continue during that time. And EPA has indicated that it remains open to compromise.

Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, also “continues to work with both Wyoming and EPA to find a solution that will allow the units to continue operating until the units are converted to natural gas,” Tiffany Erickson, the utility’s media relations manager, said in an email to the Star-Tribune.

At first glance, the change seems straightforward. The state, with the utility’s support, in 2011 developed a pollution management plan under the EPA’s Regional Haze Rule. It required Rocky Mountain Power to install selective catalytic reduction (SCR), an emissions control technology that reduces output of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx), at all four Bridger units: unit 3 before 2016, unit 4 before 2017, unit 2 before 2022 and unit 1 before 2023.

The plan was finalized in 2014. Rocky Mountain Power completed the first two installations without issue. But coal, then at the start of its decline, is in a very different place today.

In 2015, all four Bridger units were scheduled to operate through 2037. Two years later, the utility advanced two of those retirement dates — 2028 for unit 1, 2032 for unit 2 — under the assumption that it could then forgo installing NOx controls at those units.

Rocky Mountain Power successfully pitched its alternative plan to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in early 2019. Later that year, the units’ closure dates inched forward to 2023 and 2028, respectively.

Wyoming submitted its revised plan, outlining the economic and environmental benefits of reducing electricity production through retirement instead of installing NOx controls, the following May. But the subsequent administration change turned a seemingly promising arrangement into an unexpected gamble.

Conversion of both units to natural gas in 2024 appeared for the first time in the utility’s 2021 Integrated Resource Plan, published in September, midway between EPA’s informal rejection and the Dec. 31 deadline.

Switching to natural gas nullifies the coal-specific NOx control problem. Doing it in 2024 leaves just a few years between the deadline and conversion.

But no matter how negotiations go, 2024 is the earliest Rocky Mountain Power says the units can be converted.

“Due to the time required to install the natural gas pipeline,” Erickson said, “the conversion cannot occur prior to the fourth quarter of 2023.”

At year’s end, the dispute still unresolved, Gordon signed a temporary emergency suspension that extended the compliance window by four months. Unit 2 began operating under the state’s proposed restrictions on Jan. 1. Rocky Mountain Power has said it will stop operating the unit, in accordance with federal law, if a resolution has not been reached by April 30. Under such a scenario, Erickson said, the utility would continue to pursue a solution for both units after that date.

“Of the 302 (Bridger) employees, an estimated 60 to 65 employees are necessary for continued coalfired operation of Jim Bridger Unit 2 and would be adversely impacted by an early closure,” Erickson said.

Since parts of the years-long debate became public knowledge in November, three distinct factions have emerged. Specifics have remained elusive.

According to the governor’s office, EPA has failed to justify its objections to the state’s plan.

According to EPA, the state has failed to justify the economic merits of its proposal.

And according to environmental groups involved in the negotiations, the state’s plan is fundamentally, unacceptably flawed.

Gordon’s November letter estimates the cost of installing selective catalytic reduction at units 1 and 2 at more than $297 million. The emissions-limiting alternative, he wrote, costs about $16 million, and “was significantly better than the proposed SCR requirement in every possible way.”

Not everyone agrees with the state’s math. Wyoming’s plan assumes that the Bridger units run at maximum capacity, which they don’t, Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, previously told the Star-Tribune. WyoFile reported in 2019 that existing permit restrictions already limited the plant to 84% capacity.

After the DEQ proposed the changes in mid-2019, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, National Parks Conservation Association and Sierra Club submitted public comment challenging the new plan. They said that reducing emissions according to maximum capacity, rather than actual capacity, overestimated the plan’s efficacy. And they found that the plan would lead to an increase in total NOx emissions at Bridger.

That position has not changed.

“For eight years, PacifiCorp has irresponsibly acted as if it’s above the law by not planning to control pollution from one of the region’s dirtiest coal plants,” Lindsay Beebe, Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative, said in a statement Thursday. “Now, workers at the Jim Bridger coal plant may pay the price for PacifiCorp’s willful disregard of the law.”

PacifiCorp, and the state, have challenged those claims repeatedly over the last several years.

But the environmental groups’ 2019 public comment argued, too, that “the agency completely failed to explain the justification for backsliding on an agency decision to improve air quality that has been in place for a decade.”

More than two years later, in Wednesday’s pre-publication of the proposed disapproval, EPA concluded that Wyoming “has not provided any new information that would support a revised determination that the requirements are now unreasonable.”

PacifiCorp, and the state, disagree. They hope further discussion can clear up any lingering differences.

Location could be a sticking point. Because NOx can damage vegetation and reduce visibility, the agency cited the plant’s proximity to beloved wilderness areas, including Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, as a major concern.

“While we look forward to public comment and continued opportunities for engagement, our evaluation of information provided to date indicates the State’s revision to its 2014 regional haze plan is a step backward for visibility in our parks, wilderness areas, and communities,” EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker said in a Wednesday statement.

The public comment period is expected to begin around Jan. 18.

This story was published on Jan. 16.

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