Water regulators’ recent vote to phase out “once-through” cooling systems in 19 of California’s power plants may not have won them many friends in the energy industry, but for those who enjoy California’s diverse and beautiful coastal ecosystems, the move comes as welcome news.
The new standards force power plants that use marine water for cooling to comply with the Clean Water Act, which requires the use of the “best practicable technology available” to comply with the law. The California State Water Resources Control Board estimated that the cheap but environmentally costly once-through cooling system kills 2.6 million fish, 19 billion fish larvae and 57 seals, sea lions and sea turtles per year, in violation of the CWA’s water quality criteria designed to protect aquatic life.
“‹Critics of the new standard say it will cost the energy companies that own the power plants hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the standard, while some older plants may be forced to shut down altogether. They argue that the fiscal costs of adhering to the mandate outweigh the benefits, an oft-cited complaint by industry in environmental policy debates, yet one that is flawed in many ways.
“‹First and foremost, the argument ignores the fact that current practices already incur an immense cost on California’s ocean and coastal ecosystem, which supports numerous industries and provides recreational use for millions of Californians. Currently, these externalities are paid for by every California taxpayer who enjoys our coast and the countless fishermen who rely on a healthy Pacific Ocean for their very livelihood, while the energy companies reap the rewards. This new mandate simply seeks to rectify this inequity by placing responsibility for this cost on the polluters themselves.
“‹The ire of the energy companies is also fueled by a strong anthropocentric bias that either attaches little value to the ocean as a resource or naively denies that something so vast could be significantly impacted by the actions of humans. Anyone who has ever fished, swum, surfed or simply walked along California’s beaches can attest to the immense value, both as an economic and social resource, that the Pacific coast provides.
As for the belief that the ocean is simply too large to worry about, the facts tell a different story. Marine fisheries around the globe are in decline or have already collapsed, while many of the most diverse and ecologically important coral reefs in the world are dying.
“‹Admittedly, the 19 power plants being forced to comply share but a small fraction of the blame for the many problems our oceans face, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held responsible for their share. Killing more than 7,000 fish and 52 million fish larvae daily isn’t acceptable, let alone legal, when alternative technology exists that could easily amend the problem.
“‹The mandate isn’t about putting fish before people, but simply holding energy producers accountable for their actions. When they threaten our collective environment, a level of accountability is required by federal law. The tragedy is that these companies have been allowed to be free riders for far too long, not that this unwarranted privilege is being taken away.
“‹If there’s legitimate criticism to be had it’s that the mandate allows companies too many loopholes to fulfill their obligations. The policy allows companies the flexibility to choose between implementing a closed-cycle cooling system or making some other unspecified change to meet the standards. This flexibility has the potential to allow the energy companies to shirk their responsibilities under the law. The legality is also questionable, as a full transition to a closed-loop system would represent the best technology possible, but is not necessarily required under the provisions of the ruling.
“‹Despite its shortcomings, the vote is a significant step toward bringing California in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The Golden State has long been a leader in shaping national environmental policy, a position that ensures increased attention and scrutiny is placed on every environmental decision California makes. The new standards send a strong message that companies will be held responsible for actions that pose an unacceptable risk to our collective natural environment.
Power plants aren’t entitled to the right to desecrate our oceans, yet this sense of entitlement has been business as usual for far too long. The new standards point to a drastic improvement.