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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cooling Water Intake Structures: Summary of EPA’s Proposed Rule

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

Thermoelectric generating plants and manufacturing facilities withdraw large volumes of water for production and, especially, to absorb heat from their industrial processes. Water withdrawals by power producers and manufacturers represent more than one-half of water withdrawn daily for various uses in the United States. Although water withdrawal is a necessity for these facilities, it also presents special problems for aquatic resources. In particular, the process of drawing surface water into the plant through cooling water intake structures (CWIS) can simultaneously pull in fish, shellfish, and tiny organisms, injuring or killing them. Congress enacted Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) specifically to address CWIS.

Regulatory efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement Section 316(b) have a long and complicated history over 35 years, including legal challenges at every step by industry groups and environmental advocates. Currently most new facilities are regulated under rules issued in 2001, while rules for existing facilities were challenged and remanded to EPA for revisions. In response to the remands, in March 2011 EPA proposed national requirements affecting approximately 1,150 existing electric powerplants and manufacturing facilities. EPA is under a court-ordered schedule to issue a final CWIS rule by July 27, 2012. Even before release, the proposed regulations were highly controversial among stakeholders and some Members of Congress. The issue for Congress has been whether a stringent and costly environmental mandate could jeopardize reliability of electricity supply in the United States. Many in industry feared, while environmental groups hoped, that EPA would require installation of technology called closed-cycle cooling that most effectively minimizes the adverse environmental impacts of CWIS, but also is the most costly technology option.

The EPA proposal declined to mandate closed-cycle cooling universally and instead favors a less costly, more flexible regulatory option. EPA’s recommended approach would essentially codify current CWIS permitting procedures for existing facilities, which are based on site-specific determinations and have been in place administratively for some time because of legal challenges to previous rules. EPA acknowledges that closed-cycle systems reduce the adverse effects of CWIS to a greater extent than other technologies, but in the proposed rule it rejected closed-cycle cooling as a uniform requirement at existing facilities. The agency based that conclusion on four factors: additional energy needed by electricity and manufacturing facilities to operate cooling equipment and adverse consequences to reliability of energy delivery (i.e., energy penalty), additional air pollutants that would be emitted because fossil-fueled facilities would need to burn more fuel as compensation for the energy penalty, land availability concerns in some locations, and limited remaining useful life of some facilities such that retrofit costs would not be justified.

Not surprisingly, stakeholder groups viewed the proposal differently. Environmental groups endorsed the parts of the rule to establish nationally uniform requirements, but criticized those allowing for site-specific determinations. Industry groups urged EPA to provide greater flexibility that would be more cost-effective. State permitting authorities were divided on modifying the rule to be more flexible. In June 2012, EPA said it is considering alternatives that reflect some recommendations of industry and utility groups and is asking for more public comment on these options. Whether the agency will be able to meet the current court-ordered schedule to issue a final rule by July 27 is uncertain.

Date of Report: June 12, 2012
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41786
Price: $29.95

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