Low-priced and abundant natural gas supplies are a major reason in the past two years that two key emissions from electric generation plants have been reduced in nearly two dozen states affected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) cross-state rule for air pollution, according to a market alert from Bentek Energy LLC.

In the past two years nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from power plants have dropped by 16% and 34%, respectively, in states affected by EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), according to the Bentek report. Low natural gas prices have been the enabler for utilities to turn to more use of gas-fired generation and accelerate their approach to compliance with CSAPR, the report said.

"A key factor has been the increased use of natural gas with the gas burn up 23% [for power plants] year-to-date from 2011," said the report, noting that scrubbers at coal plants also have helped some in cutting emissions.

Based on a proprietary database developed by Bentek, the Denver-based consulting research firm has determined that 18 of 28 states affected by CSAPR have reached compliance for SO2 targets. The database is able to monitor changes in emissions and power plant operations by region, power company and individual plants nationwide, the report noted.

"Low prices from natural gas have helped the power generation industry as a whole meet and beat EPA targets for power plant emissions at least two years before federal pollution regulations would take effect," Bentek concluded, adding that since 2005 the SO2 emissions from power plants have been reduced by 62% and over the same period the NOx emissions went down by 53%.

CSAPR, an addendum to the federal Clean Air Act, sets the goal of reducing SO2 and NOx emissions from power plants, impacting 28 states, mostly in the Midwest, South and Mid-Atlantic regions, starting in 2014, if not further delayed by legal challenges. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in late June ruled that EPA was "unambiguously correct" in using the existing federal law to address power plant emissions, it has yet to issue a final ruling on CSAPR and its stay of the EPA rulemaking remains in effect.

Beginning in 2014 CSAPR is supposed to impact emissions from 3,600 generating units at more than 1,000 power plants in 28 states. The rule "requires states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that contribute to ozone and/or fine particle pollution in other states [therefore, 'cross-state']."

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