Two Anne Arundel County power plants - Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner - have announced their plans to transition from burning coal to mostly burning oil in the years ahead, and they received a preliminary green light from the Maryland Public Service Commission this week.
Environmental advocates say the plans to abandon coal-burning are commendable, but that they're concerned by the plants' proposed switch to burning oil, which is also a highly polluting fossil fuel.
Many coal plants, including the C.P. Crane facility in nearby Baltimore County, have opted to swap from coal to natural gas, a cleaner option than oil. But lately, soaring natural gas prices have some power companies eyeing oil, according to reports from the International Energy Agency.
Wednesday, Maryland's commission considered whether Raven Power, which operates both plants, would need to get a new "certificate of public convenience and necessity" to switch to oil. The company, a subsidiary of Talen Energy, argued that it wouldn't need a new certificate because the changes would be decreasing air emissions, not increasing them.
In a unanimous ruling, the commission agreed. The company will still need to seek a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment to move forward, but environmentalists fear the commission's decision is a missed opportunity for a more thorough review of Raven's plan.
The environmental groups, including the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, said Wednesday that the company's emissions estimates warranted further scrutiny by the commission.
For one thing, the company based its esti
mates on the assumption that the Pasadena plants, once they burn oil instead of coal, will operate at about 8% of their capacity due to the high cost of oil.
"As far as we know, there is nothing to ensure that the operations will actually be done in accordance with that assumption," said Leah Kelly, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. "There is nothing preventing the company from ramping up operations if the price of oil drops."
During Wednesday's hearing, David Beugelmans, an attorney for Raven Power, said the company plans to stand by the 8% operation threshold during the permitting process.
"We would be willing to include limits to operations that would ensure that there's no increase to emissions," Beugelmans said.
The company previously said that it would stop burning coal at the facilities by the end of 2025.
During the meeting, William Paul, MDE's air quality permits chief, spoke in support of the company's proposal.
"This is a project that will result in significant environmental benefits and public health benefits because there's going to be a dramatic decrease in the amount of regulated air pollutants that are being discharged from this very source," Paul said.
Since Raven Power won't need to get a new certificate from the Public Service Commission, a more extensive review of the project's impact on climate change will not take place, Kelly said. A spokesperson for Talen Energy did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Environmental groups had hoped such a review might include an analysis of how the project contributes to state greenhouse gas reduction targets, and an analysis of any possible water pollution, particularly if the company opts to ship in oil using barges.
A law passed by the General Assembly last year requires the commission to consider a project's climate change impacts - and its effects on the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals - during reviews of certificates.
That came after the commission - during a review of C.P. Crane's transition from coal - said state law didn't require it to consider climate change.
"By avoiding a [Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity], they are avoiding that climate test," said Anne Havemann, general counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "This was a procedural decision that was not in step with the intent of the General Assembly - I believe - in passing that law."
Caption: The Brandon Shores power plant says it will transition to burning oil in the years ahead after getting the OK from the state. Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun FILE