Idaho will remain free from coal-fired power plants following an executive order from the governor.
Gov. Jim Risch on Wednesday, Aug. 9, directed the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to write rules opting out of the federal mercury cap and trade program.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act mercury rule program seeks to decrease mercury emissions from commercial coal-fired power plants nationwide by allowing trading of pollution credits. Such power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States.
"This is a very important step in protecting Idaho's environment and the people who call Idaho home," Risch said in a news release. "There are companies that have tried to build coal-fired power facilities in Idaho and will continue to try if we were to opt in. While I promote economic development throughout the state, the health implications of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants far outweigh any economic benefits."
Idaho has a zero cap for mercury emissions, which in practice prevents coal-fired power plants from operating because they wouldn't be able to produce power without any mercury emissions.
The state's cap of zero is based on the number of coal-burning power plants, which is zero. Only two other states and Washington, D.C., have no coal-fired power plants.
If Idaho opted to participate in the cap and trade program, it would allow coal-fired power plants that want to operate here by buying pollution credits from plants that have reduced their mercury emissions elsewhere.
"If we do nothing, the EPA will automatically opt Idaho into the trading program," Risch said in the release. "I do not want to see us importing mercury emissions from other states into Idaho."
In June, 33 out of 35 state senators submitted a request to Risch to opt out of the program. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Board issued the same recommendation.
Idaho Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, who has long been a proponent of controlling power-plant-related mercury emissions, said he was "thrilled" about the governor's announcement.
"My siting bill was defeated on a party line vote," he said Thursday. "They turned me down so I took it to the people. And boy, did they get involved."
Stennett introduced last session multiple pieces of power-plant legislation, all of which initially got a cool reception from Republicans.
"To have the governor of the state of Idaho surrounded by a bunch of Republican lawmakers (announcing his decision) ... we moved the compass 180 degrees from where Republicans sat on these issues just eight months ago," he said.
Stennett's proposals were prompted by San Diego-based Sempra Generation's plans to build a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Jerome County. The company announced last April that it would sell its options and development rights there.
"We've concluded our interest in developing coal facilities in Idaho and elsewhere," spokesman Art Larson said Thursday. "We've made a strategic decision to focus on natural gas infrastructure, liquid natural gas plants, storage and pipelines. Our focus is not on generation right now."
Despite Sempra's pullout, the Legislature eventually passed a two-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants and is working on a statewide energy plan.
"The moratorium, siting bills, all these things are important," Stennett said. "The ultimate Achilles' heel was the zero mercury standard."
Lawmakers could overturn the governor's order, but both houses would have to "affirmatively reject" it, Stennett said.
"The House could actually reject the rule because they weren't interested in our bills last year, but the Senate won't," he said. "The House doesn't understand the issue as well as the Senate."
Another governor could opt in to the cap and trade program, but Stennett predicted that such a decision is unlikely.
"It would take a very gutsy and politically inept move by a governor to unwind (the) decision," he said, adding, "or, a real catastrophe."
Still, Idahoans will continue to use power that comes from coal-fired power plants.
Idaho Power, which serves most southern Idaho customers, already uses energy generated from coal-burning facilities. It also includes in a long-range plan coal-fired power plants as part of its portfolio.
Stennett, however, hopes the focus turns elsewhere.
"I hope they continue to develop a renewable portfolio standard as part of (the interim energy committee's) plan," he said. "That's the kind of thing we need to get on with instead of just looking at old ways of doing things."