Boulder, Colo., is a beautiful town that sits at the foot of the Rocky Mountains just north of Denver. It was my home for six years and where both my daughters were born. The town is one of the most environmentally hip cities in the country -- it's ringed by a giant donut of undeveloped open space that the city council smartly started buying in the '70s, is home to all kinds of green businesses, and has a high concentration of people who like to hug trees in both the literal and figurative sense. The streets are lined with gorgeous and quirky homes more often than not framed by huge old trees and the city has a fantastic bike and walking trail system to get around, sans car.
But Boulder is marred by an ugly scar just a few miles from downtown -- Xcel Energy's Valmont coal-fired power plant is a large 200 megawatt facility that pumps out more than a million metric tons of CO2 each year. The air permit for the plant, which allows it to pump out all that pollution, has expired.
The state's Air Quality Control Commission is responsible for renewing the permit every five years and has been holding public hearings to listen to what people have to say.
The commission is more or less obligated to renew the permit as long as the plant adheres to state standards for power plants, which must meet or exceed federal standards set in the Clean Air Act, which right now doesn't regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. As the plant does meet the current emissions standards, this would ordinarily would be a situation where lots of people get upset and then watch the commission, bound by statute, rubber stamp another five years of pollution.
It gets interesting here because the federal standing on regulating CO2 emissions isn't totally clear.
Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that CO2 is a pollutant and should be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. The head of the EPA under the Bush regime declined to regulate CO2 but Lisa Jackson, President Obama's new eco-chief, has pulled the policy up for review.
Because Colorado's state standards must match the federal Clean Air Act standards, the Air Quality Control Commission would be remiss if they didn't consider the possibility of CO2 being added to the list of regulated emissions in the next year by the feds. I'm not clear on the law regarding what happens if they grant the permit and then have the EPA decide to regulate CO2 next year -- does the permit get pulled for review or is it grandfathered in? I'm going to track down the answer and will give you an update back when I have it.
I remember lots of winter days where my drive home was dominated by the hulking and smoky stacks of the Valmont plant and its smoggy connection with the cloudy sky. I wouldn't shed a tear for its demise (add it to the list
) or renewal as a greener facility. One option that has been thrown around is to convert the plant to burn biomass
-- industrial organic waste that, if done right, is CO2 neutral (any CO2 released in burning was sucked out of the environment by the tree/grass/crop while it grew, unlike coal which is long-buried 'extraneous' CO2).
The commission will be releasing their judgement in the coming weeks. I'll be watching this one.