Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): Clean Air Rule

Posted on June 12, 2012

I wish to speak for a moment about clean air.

Over the last several years, first as Governor of Tennessee and later as a
U.S. Senator, I have learned that healthier air also means better jobs for
Tennesseans. That is why I intend to vote to uphold a clean air rule that
requires utilities in other States to install the same pollution control
equipment the Tennessee Valley Authority is already installing on coal-fired
power plants in the TVA region.

TVA alone can't clean up our air. Tennessee is bordered by more States than
any other State. We are literally surrounded by our neighbors' smokestacks. If
we in Tennessee want more Nissan and Volkswagen plants, we will have to stop
dirty air from blowing into Tennessee, and here is why. Back in 1980, I was
Governor and Nissan came to Tennessee. The first thing the Nissan executives
did was to go down to the State air quality board and apply for an air quality
permit for their paint emissions plant. If the air in the Nashville area had
been so dirty that Nissan couldn't have gotten an air quality permit for
additional emissions, Nissan would have gone to Georgia and we would not be
able to say today that one-third of our manufacturing jobs in Tennessee are
auto jobs.

Every one of Tennessee's major metropolitan areas is struggling today to
meet the standards that govern whether industries can acquire the air quality
permits they need to locate in our State.

I once asked the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce leaders to name their top
priority. They said to me: Clean air. Now, Sevierville is not necessarily a
hotbed of leftwing radicals. Sevier County is the most Republican county in the
State. It is nestled right up against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It is where Dolly Parton was born. I live in the next county, right up next to
Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

East Tennesseans know that 9 million visitors come each year to see the
Great Smoky Mountains, not to see the Great Smoggy Mountains, and we
want those tourist dollars and the jobs they bring to keep coming.

Despite a lot of progress, the Great Smokies is still one of the most
polluted national parks in America. Standing on Clingman's Dome -- our highest
peak, about 6,643 feet -- you should be able to see about 100 miles through the
natural blue haze about which the Cherokees used to sing. Yet today, on a
smoggy day you can see only 24 miles.

There are 546 Tennesseans who work today in coal mining in our State,
according to the Energy Information Administration. Every single one of those
jobs is important. This has been an important tradition in a few counties in
East Tennessee. At the same time, there are 1,200 Tennesseans who work at the
Alstom plants in Knoxville and Chattanooga that will supply the country with
most of the pollution-control equipment required by this rule. Every one of
those Tennesseans’ jobs is important too.

Of the top five worst cities for asthma in the United States, according to
the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, three are in Tennessee. They are
Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. Only last year Nashville dropped out of
the top 10 worst U.S. cities for asthma. Because of the high levels of mercury,
health advisories warn against eating fish caught in many of Tennessee's
streams.

According to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, nationally mercury causes
brain damage in more than 315,000 children each year. It also contributes to
mental retardation. Half of the manmade mercury in the United States comes from
coal-fired power plants. This new rule requires removing 90 percent of this
mercury. The rule also controls 186 other hazardous pollutants, including
arsenic, acid gases, and toxic metals.

Utilities have known this was coming since 1990 because these 187
pollutants, including mercury, are specifically identified in the 1990
amendments to the Clean Air Act as air pollutants that need to be controlled by
utilities. Now the Federal courts have added their weight and ordered the
Environmental Protection Agency to control these pollutants.

An added benefit of the rule is that the equipment installed to control
these hazardous pollutants will also capture fine particles, a major source of
respiratory disease that is primarily regulated under another part of the Clean
Air Act. This new equipment will add a few dollars a month to residential
electric bills. The EPA estimates a 3-percent increase nationwide. But because
the Tennessee Valley Authority has already made a commitment to install these
pollution controls, the customers of TVA will pay this rate increase anyway --
with the rule or without the rule. To reduce the costs, the Senator from
Arkansas, Senator Pryor, and I will introduce legislation to allow utilities 6
years to comply with the rule, which is a timeline many utilities have
requested.

Earlier today the Senator from Oklahoma, who is sponsoring a resolution to
overturn the rule, referred to the legislation Senator Pryor and I offered as a
cover amendment and suggested in some way that it wasn't a sincere effort. I
greatly respect the Senator from Oklahoma. Sometimes we have different points
of view, but I have different points of view with the Senator from Minnesota,
the Senator from Arkansas, not to mention Senators from almost every place in
the country. But I respect those different points of view just as I respect
Senator Inhofe's different point of view, and I hope he will respect mine. Here
is my point of view: Ever since I have been in the Senate, I have introduced
legislation to clean up the air in Tennessee. Why have I done that? Because we
don't want the Great Smoggy Mountains, we want the Great Smoky
Mountains. We don't want to perpetually have three of the top five asthma
cities in the country. We don't like health advisory warnings on our streams so
we can't eat our fish.

We especially don't want the Memphis Chamber of Commerce to recruit another
big auto plant to the big Memphis megasite and then learn that they can't come
here because the Memphis area has dirty air and the auto manufacturer can’t get
a necessary air permit. It would be even worse if that dirty air is blowing in
from another State.

So what this rule is about is requiring our neighbors, and the rest of the
country, to do the same thing we are already doing. If they don't do it, we
have no chance in the world to ever have clean air in Tennessee. Also, if we
don't, we will have worse health and fewer jobs.

Now as far as the 6 years goes, the law gives States the right to add a
fourth year to the 3 years the utilities have to comply with the law. Today
Federal law gives the President of the United States the right to add 2 more
years to that, so that is 6 years. In the law today the President and the
States could make sure utilities have 6 years to comply with this rule. I
believe that makes sense.

If I were the king and could wave a magic wand, that is what I would do. Why
would I do that? Because we will be getting environmental benefits from
utilities’ efforts over the 6 years. So what will happen is utilities will assess
their coal plants, decide which ones are too old or too expensive to operate,
decide within 3 years to close those they will not continue to operate, and
then they will have 6 years to spread the costs of implementing the expensive
pollution-control equipment -- most of it is called SCRs and scrubbers -- on
their coal-fired power plants.

Most of the utilities have suggested this 6-year timeline as the single best
way to clean the air and to do it in a way that has the least impact on
electric bills.

So we will introduce our legislation to give utility executives 6 years to
implement the rule, but we will also write President Obama a letter and urge
him to grant the 6 years so utility executives can have that certainty. Some
are saying this rule is anti-coal. I say it is pro-coal in this sense because
it guarantees coal a future in our clean energy mix. As I have said, the
Tennessee Valley Authority has decided to put the pollution control equipment
it needs to make coal clean on all of the coal plants it continues to operate.
That doesn't count carbon; that counts all of the hazardous pollution. It
counts sulfur, nitrogen, sulfur, mercury, and those sorts of things.

That means, long term, the TVA will be able to produce more than one-third
of its electricity from clean coal. That guarantees its future for the
foreseeable future in our region, and this is the largest public utility in the
world. The rest of our electricity in the Tennessee Valley will come from even
cleaner natural gas and from pollution-free nuclear power and hydropower.

Ever since Tennesseans elected me to the Senate, which was about 10 years
ago, I have worked hard to clean up our air. Tennesseans know that. Most of
them agree with me. They thank me for it when I go home on weekends. They do
that because they know if I do not help clean up our air in Tennessee, and if I
don't stop dirty air from blowing into our State from other States who don't
have pollution controls on their coal plants, that it jeopardizes our health
and it jeopardizes our opportunity to continue to be one of the Nation's
leading States in attracting auto jobs and in attracting tourists.

I notice on the Senate floor the Senator from Arkansas, Mr. Pryor, and I
thank him for his leadership on the issue and for his practical attitude. I
believe we have the same goals, which are, No. 1, clean the air but keep the
electric bills down at the lowest possible cost, and we believe we have the
most constructive proposal to do that. We hope President Obama will agree with
us.

First, we hope the Senate will agree with us and uphold the rule; second,
that the President will agree with us and grant 6 years; and, third, if he does
not, that the Congress will agree with us and pass a law giving utilities 6
years to spread out the costs.

[Sen. Pryor]

Alexander: I wish to congratulate the Senator from Arkansas for his very clear explanation of what we are about here. The United States produces 25?percent of all the wealth in the world every year. In order to do that, we use about 20 to 25?percent of all of the electricity in the world. We need low-cost, reliable, large amounts of clean electricity and we need for coal to have a secure part of the future of our clean energy mix.

I have said for years, we know what to do about sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and the hazardous pollutants. We have the pollution control equipment to capture all of those. We can make the coal clean, except for carbon, so let's put that over here on the side for a minute. We can make the coal clean and we should do it. We should have done it in a law over the last few years. We have had 15 Senators equally divided on both sides of the aisle trying to pass a law. We couldn't get it done so we defaulted to the EPA, so now they have had to do the rule. But the Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 we told EPA to write this rule. In the law, it listed the pollutants that have to be controlled. In 2005, President Bush tried to write this rule but a Federal Court threw it out and in 2008 said to the EPA, you have to do it, the way the law says to do it. So Congress has told them to do it, the courts have told them to do it, and now they have done it according to the law. If we don't like the rule, we have to change the law, which we are not doing with the resolution of disapproval.

The constructive thing we can do is let the rule go forward. Let's have clean coal be a part of our clean energy mix, and then let's allow utilities what they many of them have asked for, 6 years to implement the rule. Hopefully, our legislation will pass. Hopefully, just the mere introduction of it, particularly by those of us who support the rule, will persuade President Obama that it would be a reasonable Executive Order for him to make, to assure people across the country that we will have no interruption in the reliability of our electricity and that we will have no great increase in costs in most parts of the country.

I agree with the Senator from Arkansas when he said that coal needs to be a very important part of our future. This regulation will make coal in our region an important part of our electricity production. If the TVA is the biggest public utility in the country, and it is going to produce a third of its electricity from coal with pollution-control equipment on the plants. That is clean coal.

But the real holy grail of energy for me is the scientist who discovers the way to turn carbon from existing coal plants into something commercially useful. It will probably be in energy. In the Department of Energy right now they have an interesting experiment where they are applying a biologic process -- really, bugs -- to electrodes, turning it into oil. Imagine what would happen if all the coal plants in our country could turn the carbon they produce into other kinds of energy. Then, suddenly, we would have this 400-year supply of coal, and the carbon, as well as all the other parts, would be clean and we could use even more coal than the one-third it is likely to represent.

I appreciate very much the leadership of the Senator from Arkansas, his advocacy, and his clear statement of opinion. I wish to say to both our Republican and Democratic colleagues, if you are looking for a way to have clean coal, clean air, and do it at the lowest possible cost to the taxpayer, let's do what most of the utilities have asked for and give them a timeline of 6 years to implement the rule. The easiest way to do it would be for the President to introduce the Executive Order, and each State to give the utility one more year, because that authority is already a part of the Federal law.

 

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