Tenaska's air permit: the incredible disappearing carbon capture and storage plan

The good news yesterday out of Springfield yesterday was that Tenaska Energy’s proposed Taylorville Energy Center – a ratepayer-funded, very dirty “clean coal” boondoggle to make expensive synthetic gas from coal that no one needs – appears to be dead for now.

“Appears to be dead for now,” of course, is the sort of thing they said about Rasputin and the Night of the Living Dead zombies.  We’re sufficiently skeptical that we went ahead today and filed an appeal of Tenaska’s permit for the project that was issued last month by Illinois EPA.  Our appeal is now pending before the U.S. EPA Environmental Appeals Board, which stays effectiveness of the permit.

Why the skepticism?  Because Tenaska, it seems, has a way of making things disappear at will – a bit of a talent for magic, as it were.  And having seen a few magic shows, you never know when things that get disappeared – like rabbits or coal subsidies – are going to reappear in another form.

A look back at the history of the project, and the basis for our appeal, makes clear why we’re still on the lookout for the disappearing act sleight of hand.  Tenaska  not only found in the proposed project a way to  make dollars disappear from ratepayer’s pockets into Tenaska’s coffers, but it also managed to make the “clean” part of “clean coal”  vanish as well.  The Taylorville project, which would convert coal into natural gas, was Tenaska’s attempt to qualify for a massive ratepayer-funded “clean coal” subsidy.  So, two years ago, Tenaska’s lobbyists fell all over themselves trying to convince the Illinois General Assembly that the company planned to control the proposed plant’s massive carbon dioxide output by storing it underground, and that the plan would surely work.  But when the company went to the Illinois EPA to get its permit, the carbon capture plan had mysteriously vanished, replaced – voila! – with a litany of reasons why carbon capture and storage was not going to work.

Unfortunately for Tenaska, this latest disappearing act runs afoul of the law.  The company’s abrupt turnabout on earlier promises that the plant would capture and store its carbon dioxide not only does not pass the laugh test, it does not meet basic Clean Air Act permitting requirements, either.  Accordingly, the appeal filed today by NRDC and Sierra Club challenges -- among many other things -- the lack of a carbon storage requirement.

The trouble for Tenaska  -- and the good news for Illinoisans – is that the Clean Air Act requires that new polluting projects use the best available technology to control their pollution.   After the U.S. Supreme Court decided a few years ago that carbon dioxide, which is threatening massive harm to the Earth’s climate, is like any other air pollutant in the eyes of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA got busy and issued rules and guidance on how to determine what’s the best available control technology for carbon dioxide emissions.  In its guidance on the subject, the federal Agency made clear that in many cases, carbon capture and storage – that is, injecting the carbon into the ground deep enough that it will stay there permanently -- is going to be the best technology; and that it is the job of state permitting agencies to look closely at the facts to determine whether that is the case in any particular instance.

The “look closely” requirement is where things kind of fell apart here.  Certainly, Tenaska looked closely a couple years ago at carbon capture and storage when it needed to convince the Assembly that their proposed project was “clean” enough to warrant making Illinois ratepayers foot the bill.  Indeed, the company submitted two scientific studies – one concerning technical feasibility and one concerning cost – both concluding based on extensive data and analysis that the Taylorville project was damn near perfect for carbon capture and storage.   Tenaska even followed up by applying to U.S. EPA for a permit to inject the plant’s carbon underground – again, filling the application with glowing assessments of just how well this was all going to work. 

But when Tenaska came to Illinois EPA with a pile of vague reasons why its own studies didn’t actually mean anything, rather than looking closely at them, the state Agency looked the other way.  It bought hook, line, and sinker all of Tenaska’s handwaving about why a fuzzily explained set of “logistical issues” warranted ignoring the previous studies, and issued the permit without ever seriously considering a carbon capture and storage requirement.

The disappearing carbon capture and storage plan is only one of the many legal problems with the permit.  The subsidy that Tenaska is chasing in the General Assembly requires that the project use coal from the Illinois basin.  The problem is, Illinois coal is high in sulfur, and the federal Clean Air Act requires that projects such as this one evaluate the possibility of cutting down their sulfur pollution by using lower-sulfur coal.  So when Tenaska says (and Illinois EPA agrees) that it can’t comply with federal law because of a state law subsidy, we have a problem.  Because under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, it’s very clear that when federal and state law are in conflict, federal law takes precedence.

Additionally, the permit did a pretty unlawfully lousy job of calculating the volume of toxic emissions from leaky pipes and connectors – which add up to a lot if you don’t control them – as well as figuring out the impact of the plant’s pollution on its neighbors near and far.  The law requires that permittees calculate where their pollution is going to drift off to using scientific computer models, but that wasn’t done for a major smog-producing pollutant.

We’re also challenging Tenaska’s latest magic trick, which is to try to turn their planned coal-to-gas conversion facility into a conventional gas-fired power plant – for now.  Tenaska thinks they can go ahead and build the coal gasification part later using the permit they have now from IEPA, but they’re wrong.

The outcome of the appeal now pending before the Environmental Appeals Board remains to be seen.  But we’re pretty sure that the Board doesn’t believe in magic.