Public Health Forces Power Plants to Clean Up
In response to a WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit, three massive coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma are being faced with two choices—clean up, or convert to clean energy.
Under a plan finalized Dec. 13 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), three of the states’ dirtiest and oldest coal-fired power plants will be required to reduce harmful air pollution by 95 percent within five years, or otherwise convert to natural gas or other cleaner power sources. You can view a map of these power plants by clicking here.
The plan promises significant benefits for public health and the environment.
“This is a big step forward for clean, breathable air in Oklahoma,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It also emphasizes the need to move toward cleaner energy sources.”
Coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma already take a disproportionate toll on health and the environment. Estimates indicate that every year, these plants contribute to 111 premature deaths and other illnesses at a cost of more than $1 billion (see the Clean Air Task Force report here). The EPA estimates that every year, Oklahoma coal-fired power plants degrade visibility in pristine areas such as the Wichita Mountains Wilderness Area, which is located in the southwestern portion of the state, making the area three times hazier than normal.
The EPA’s plan was spurred by a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians that challenged the EPA’s failure to ensure air pollution from a number of states, including Oklahoma, protects downwind states. As part of this lawsuit, EPA agreed to finalize a clean air plan by June 21, 2011.
The new plan responds in three significant ways:
- It approves an Oklahoma plan to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions from its coal-fired power plants. Oklahoma’s plan would reduce smog and haze forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 27,000 tons annually, equal to taking 1.4 million passenger vehicles off the road.
- It disapproves of Oklahoma’s plan to reduce sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Oklahoma’s plan fell short of ensuring enough sulfur dioxide pollution was reduced in time to meet Clean Air Act requirements.
- It adopts a federal plan that would require the use of scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from three coal-fired power plant units in Oklahoma—two units at Oklahoma Gas and Electric’s 1,716 megawatt Muskogee plant in Muskogee County and two units at the company’s 1,138 megawatt Sooner plant in Noble County, and two units at American Electric Power’s 946 megawatt Northeastern plant in Rogers County. The plan would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 95 percent from these coal-fired plants and require these reductions to be achieved within three years.
The EPA’s plan rejected a proposal by Oklahoma that would have allowed the state’s coal-fired power plants to avoid installing scrubbers in exchange to committing to convert to cleaner natural gas by 2026. The plan does not foreclose on the ability of the power plants to convert to natural gas, but makes clear that such conversions would need to happen more quickly.
In total, 3,800 megawatts of coal-fired electricity would be cleaned up or repowered.
“The door is open for clean energy, but we can’t sacrifice our clean air to get there,” said Nichols. “EPA’s plan leaves Oklahoma utilities a reasonable choice—either convert to clean energy sooner, or clean up their pollution.”
For more information, click here.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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