Board shuts down Vistra effort to fast-track coal plant ruling
November 5, 2018
By Jeffrey Tomich
The Illinois Pollution Control Board denied a request by Vistra Energy Corp. to expedite new rules that would let the company run its dirtier and more profitable coal plants in the state more frequently.
In an order last week, the five-member board said the Irving, Texas-based power producer’s claims of “economic harms” didn’t justify an expedited rulemaking.
“The board is not convinced that the need to address wholesale energy market issues should control the substance or timing of proposed amendments to a substantive environmental regulation,” the six-page order said.
The order comes a month after the board proposed modifications to Illinois’ Multi-Pollutant Standard (MPS) that includes pollution limits for Vistra’s 18 coal units representing more than 5,000 megawatts (Energywire, Oct. 5).
The Pollution Control Board’s proposal is a sort of compromise between the power producer’s effort to get relief from existing emissions rules and critics, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) and a coalition of environmental groups, which want to keep existing standards in place.
Vistra had asked the board to finalize the rule change by Feb. 1, after which it would be subject to review by a legislative committee before taking effect. Madigan and environmental advocates challenged the request.
Vistra CEO Curt Morgan told analysts during a Friday conference call that the board’s proposal is “reasonable and fair” and he now expects a final outcome in April or May, after which the company could make decisions related to the future of its Illinois coal fleet.
The power producer has suggested it may shutter coal units in southern Illinois based on what executives view as inadequate capacity payments — payments made to ensure power plants are ready to run during periods of peak demand.
Morgan said Vistra is continuing work to “optimize” its Illinois portfolio and believes it can achieve a “reasonably significant” improvement in earnings from its Illinois plants. The company will be ready to act on that plan as soon as it gets an outcome from the Pollution Control Board.
“We’re going to be in a position to execute immediately,” Morgan said. “If the deal goes through the way it is now, we know what we would do. It’s just a matter of timing. But we also have been contingency planning, so if something else happened, then we would be prepared for that, as well.”
A possible wild card in the administrative rulemaking process? Politics.
Illinois voters will elect a governor tomorrow, and polls point to Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker defeating incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner.
Pritzker earlier this year criticized the rule proposed at Vistra’s request by the Illinois EPA.
In response to a questionnaire sent to candidates by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Democrat said of the proposed MPS rule change: “I will stand on the side of science and reason and not scrap limits on pollution.”
But would a new governor, during his first months in office and facing a fiscal crisis, step in and derail an administrative rule initiated by his predecessor?
Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, one of the groups challenging Vistra’s petition, believes a Pritzker administration would reassess the state’s position on the rule proposal.
“You’re dealing with a proposal that came from the Illinois EPA,” he said.
While the board wouldn’t explicitly seek out a new governor’s stance before issuing a ruling, Learner said he believes this week’s election will provide important context for their decision.
“They’ll be interested to hear what [the administration’s] position is if a new governor is elected,” he said.