Decommissioning Power Plants: A Process Without a Standard Regulatory Framework

Posted on May 7, 2013 by Pamela Giblin

The confluence of aggressive new EPA regulations targeted at coal-fired power plants and low natural gas prices has made the decommissioning of older coal-fired plants substantially more likely in the coming years. Decommissioning a plant does not occur within a specific regulatory framework. In many cases, unless there is a suspected public health threat, potential environmental conditions at the plant do not have to be reported to government agencies. For that reason environmental remediation of a plant site is often addressed in the property sale and redevelopment process.

But the shut down and decommissioning of power plants nonetheless has significant regulatory implications, and the reality is that analysis of regulatory obligations and advance planning, including a proactive strategy for interacting with agencies and other stakeholders, is essential. Understanding obligations requires review of existing permits and the underlying regulatory landscape. And that landscape may shift under your feet – for example, new regulations for coal combustion residuals on the horizon may implicate the closure of certain waste management units.

The regulatory landscape may also provide opportunities to maximize value. There are a wide variety of emission credit programs that vary by jurisdiction. Identifying and capturing emission credits brings value to the table. Similarly, water rights, to the extent they are marketable in a particular jurisdiction, could be a source of revenue.

On the practical front, laying out a smooth decommissioning path through careful planning may help avoid stoking the fire of agency, local or public ire. The agency may have a formal role to play depending on the permit conditions or applicable regulations, but there may also be extensive agency oversight exercised through pursuit of enforcement actions. Particularly where community interest is high, local, state or federal agencies may have a heightened interest and enforcement provides them an avenue for involvement in the site that might not otherwise exist. So it is important to recognize the key stakeholders early and to understand how their interest may translate to pressure on an agency to leverage any violations.

If the site is one with good redevelopment potential, finding and working with a credible and savvy purchaser may keep the focus on the end game and allow for appropriate risk-based standards to be deployed against a more concrete vision for the future of the site. Once there is a well-developed understanding of the regulatory obligations associated with the particular plant and the overall objective for the site after decommissioning, it may be the moment to reach out to the state and federal agencies, and perhaps key stakeholders, with early, accurate and contextualized information.

Because there is not a standard regulatory framework to apply, experience over the coming years as plants come offline will be telling – it is that experience that will provide useful frameworks for up front, comprehensive analysis and strategic outreach for a smooth path through decommissioning.