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Kintigh_Generating_Station_-_Somerset,_New_YorkVortex Tools covers the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to limit power plant emissions.

It’s been a spotlight year for the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). One week, a political group can claim SCOTUS is finally leading on an issue that is overdue for reform; the next week, the same group can gripe that the same SCOTUS shouldn’t overstep their bounds and should respect the laws as is. Yay, politics?

So this is the SCOTUS ruling this week:

The basics:

  • In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed new regulations on coal- and oil-fired power plant emissions. These rules—on curbing mercury and other hazardous air pollutants—were supposed to take place in April 2016 and included capturing 90% of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants (before they get released into the air), reducing 88% of acid gas emissions from power plants, and reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by 41%.
  • However, 21 states and industry groups challenged the regulations in front of the Supreme Court, and on June 29th, 2015, they voted 5-4 against the EPA. The main reasoning was that the EPA did not reasonably consider the costs of these regulations, and the majority of SCOTUS believes that the economic cost—costing $9.6 billion to install/operate equipment to remove mercury pollutants—disproportionately exceeded the health and environmental benefits.
  • The dissent believed that the EPA had considered these costs at the later stages of the project. They estimated that while the costs were nearly $10 billion for energy companies to get into compliance, they argued benefits of $37 to $90 billion annually. However, the majority of SCOTUS did not agree, and the EPA now returns to lower courts to account for the costs of compliance.

The interpretation:

  • Saying that the EPA overreached and didn’t consider the plausibility of enforcing such a standard is a common complaint from the industries looking at regulation. However, there are previous examples where this has not helped, like with cellulosic ethanol standards in gasoline—where the standards were unattainable, but the EPA enforced fines anyway.
  • Energy companies rarely like regulation, and as much as they say that they’ll regulate themselves, it rarely happens unless they’re forced into it, so some regulation is needed. Once regulations are enforced, innovation happens. However, this is not always the case (again, looking at ethanol standards in gasoline: lignocellulosic ethanol was supposed to be the great equalizer, but it wound up being a fantasy fuel that remains unproven, and the regulations remain unattainable).
  • This was the first of President Obama’s energy regulations to make it up to the Supreme Court, and with the ruling, it sets a precedence for the rest. Now state courts can point to a ruling from above them and this may well stop other energy cases from reaching the Supreme Court again. Regardless, as the regulations were announced at the end of 2011, some power plant companies already made an attempt to comply with the regulations.

However it goes, political groups will still have plenty to complain about next week.

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home), industrial water purification (biofilm removal), and reduced water pumping costs.

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for coal, biosolids, sugar beets, dairy waste, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools looks at the history of corn ethanol and the modern-day flaws of cellulosic ethanol.

You know the stereotype of the dumb son around the office who only has a position of power because his dad is the boss? I’m going to go ahead and call ethanol the dumb son of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Whether it’s the former failure of corn ethanol standards or the current failure of cellulosic ethanol standards, the EPA can’t find an ethanol solution that works for the U.S.

Ashlyak at ml.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsTo be fair, most people didn’t know that corn ethanol was going to do so poorly. Unlike in Brazil — where sugar ethanol benefits from abundance and an easier process — U.S.  corn ethanol requires so much water to produce that it’s unsustainable (both financially and environmentally). Additionally, while many thought the water could be used for farmland, that option soon went away, leaving an excess of unusable water (save for some cattle feed options). In 2008, ethanol from corn produced seven pounds of by-product for every gallon of ethanol.

The final kicker was the food vs. fuel debate. Although it was largely debunked — as corn crops for food and crops for ethanol are different — the stigma stuck. Although correlations were never fully established, many argued the rising costs of consumer goods — especially dairy, poultry, and meat products — were directly tied to the increasing price of corn for ethanol use. (I won’t even note the contradiction of using fossil fuels to run alternate energy plants… at least not outside of these parentheses.)

So corn ethanol went down, but a new ethanol hero arose: Cellulosic ethanol.

Lignocellulose is basically the stuff that makes up the structure of plants. There’s lots of it around, and people can’t eat it, so the food vs. fuel debate is out. Like corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol may have less power to it, but it’s environmentally cleaner than gasoline. No wonder the EPA set standards to blend billions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol back in 2005.

The problem? Cellulosic ethanol doesn’t actually exist in the mainstream. The EPA just assumed that technology solutions would rise to meet their mandates.

According to an article by Fox News,  “not one drop of cellulosic ethanol has been produced commercially. It’s a phantom fuel,” says Tom Pyle, a representative of the Institute of Energy Research. “It doesn’t exist in the market place.”

Charles Drevna, a refinery representative, stated that, “forcing us to use a product that doesn’t exist, they might as well tell us to use unicorns.”

Considering the Congress Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated (that then largely corn) ethanol production to be raised to from 9 billion in 2008 up to 36 billion by 2022 — rates that couldn’t be met then and can’t be met now (and even if they could, they might destroy the corn soil in less than 30 years) — there’s a trend of ethanol standards being set in the hope of jumpstarting solutions.

Regardless of the reality, the EPA fines the refineries when they can’t meet these unattainable standards. As the EPA can lower these rates at their discretion, they’ve done so, but not completely: “We are going to reduce your blending obligation by 98 percent because we feel that that’s the right thing to do,” says Brooke Coleman, the executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council of the Renewable Fuels Association. “We are going to maintain your blending obligation on the gallons that we think are going to emerge.”

As cellulosic ethanol rates will rise to 16 billion by 2022, the refineries are suing the EPA now, hoping to force a firm change in standards.

Me, I’m still banking on the unicorns.

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Colin McKay Miller is the Marketing Manager for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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