(Updates with information on legal action in second, final paragraphs.)
May 20 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration settled on a scaled-back approach meant to keep fish from being sucked into the water intakes of factories and power plants with a rule that drew support from industry and fire from environmentalists.
The regulation issued yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency specified a range of options that facility operators can use to reduce the 2 billion fish, crab or shrimp that die each year in water intakes. Environmental advocates said that the agency had punted by leaving decisions with state regulators, and they threatened to sue to force tougher action.
“EPA has promulgated a largely worthless rule,” Steve Fleischli, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, said today.
The EPA rule is one of a series of measures from the administration of President Barack Obama that will add costs to run power plants, especially those using coal. That combination of rules, critics say, could drive up electricity costs and force older plants out of business. Many are closing, with 14 gigawatts of coal-fired generation shuttering in 2011 and 2012, and 63 gigawatts set to disappear by 2017 because of regulations and cheap gas, according to an analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
In this case, the EPA said it was refusing to take the course advocated by NRDC, because it would result in hasty closure of older plants.
Power companies operating large coal or nuclear plants, such as Entergy Corp., Exelon Corp. and Duke Energy Corp., had weighed in with EPA, urging it to grant flexibility and time to meet the water-intake standards. The regulation covers 1,065 factories and electric utilities, the agency said.
Plant operators will be able to choose one of seven options, including lowering the velocity of their intakes, which could allow fish to swim away, or achieving a specified level of fish killed in a screen, according to the regulation.
“We are pleased that EPA has avoided imposing a categorical one-size-fits-all approach to compliance,” Tom Kuhn, the president of Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric companies, said in a statement yesterday.
The EPA estimated its water intake rule -- issued after 20 years of legal wrangling -- would cost $275 million a year, as modifications will cut the cost of compliance. Most of the cost would be borne by power companies, it said.
The rules rely on plant owners working with state or local officials to develop plans that are most cost effective for reducing fish deaths, the agency said in a statement. New plants built at an existing site must design closed-cycle systems, or take actions that would be the equivalent, it said.
“This impacts a number of manufacturing facilities, and each one is going to be different,” said Chip Yost, assistant vice president for energy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “We’ll have to see who packs up,” because the rules are too onerous.
Environmental advocates such as Riverkeeper had pushed the agency to require closed-cycle systems, in which cooling water is reused, at most or all plants. EPA rejected the proposal, saying that requirement would be worse for land availability and air emissions, and cost $3.5 billion.
“EPA codified a practice that has not worked,” said Reed Super, a lawyer for Riverkeeper, which sued to get the agency to issue these rules. “More than likely we will be back in court, because this doesn’t come close to what the Clean Water Act requires.”