A Long-Awaited Rule to Limit Mercury and Other Toxic Pollutants from Power Plants

December 21, 2011 | 6:25 pm
Photo: swanksalot/Flickr
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Did you know that one of the largest sources of toxic pollutants in our country had gone unregulated until today? Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of airborne mercury, a potent neurotoxin known to cause harm to fetal brain development. They also spew toxic emissions of lead, arsenic, other heavy metals and acid gases. These air toxics can cause cancer, neurological damage, and heart disease, trigger asthma attacks and even lead to death. This afternoon Administrator Jackson made history by announcing the release of the final Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) Rule which will limit hazardous air pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants.

The MATS rule is more than reasonable, even if too long in coming.

Benefits of the rule

The rule will lower mercury emissions 90 percent, acid gas emissions by 88 percent and sulfur dioxide emissions 41 percent by 2015 and that will bring tremendous health benefits – yes, even save lives. EPA analysis shows that the rule will help avoid an estimated 4,200-11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks. The rule will provide an estimated $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits each year. In contrast, complying with the rule will cost $9.6 billion.

At the press conference today, Jackson spoke movingly of her own sons’ struggles with asthma and mentioned that her youngest spent his first Christmas in hospital with an asthma attack.

How the final rule compares with the proposed rule

The benefits and costs of the final rule have shifted somewhat from the proposed rule as EPA has noted. The adjustments seem broadly in line with a reasonable process to incorporate comments and feedback on the proposed rule as well as improvements in modeling. Jackson indicated in her press conference that an increased estimate of the pollution reductions and associated benefits attributable to the final Cross State Air Pollution rule also played a role.

One potentially significant way in which the final MATS rule differs from the proposed rule is that it sets an emission limit for filterable particulate matter (PM) – instead of total PM‐‐ as a proxy for regulating non‐mercury metallic air toxics. This will likely mean that fewer coal-fired power plants will need to install fabric filters to meet the standard, a position clearly desired by some in industry. This could affect economic decisions for some utilities around whether to install controls or retire certain coal plants but it is unclear to what extent. A comparison of the regulatory impact analyses of the proposed and final rules shows fabric filters being installed for an additional 102 GW of coal-fired capacity under the final rule, compared with 165 GW under the proposed rule. There is also a slight increase in projected PM2.5 emissions with the final rule as compared with the draft rule (218,000 tons v. 193,000 tons).

The lights will stay on

The fact is that the MATS standards are already being met by the best performing coal plants today. The remaining plants have many options and sufficient time to comply with the regulations. These include installing available pollution controls, using more natural gas generation, and over time drawing on increasing amounts of efficiency and renewable energy. The retirement of the oldest, dirtiest and least efficient plants makes a lot of economic sense and will bring important benefits, as financial industry analysts point out. Furthermore, the Clean Air Act includes flexibilities that will allow EPA to make case-by-case exceptions to the three-year compliance period where needed to maintain reliability.

Numerous studies of the impacts of EPA regulations, including by the Department of Energy, MJ Bradley and Analysis group and the PJM Interconnection, clearly establish that there are ample resources to meet our energy needs and that industry has sufficient time to plan for any isolated bottlenecks. FERC, DOE, EPA and the regional electricity reliability agencies can and will work together to ensure that any problems are identified early and dealt with appropriately. The highly alarmist claims about threats to reliability by some industry representatives and their allies in Congress simply don’t stand up to reality. And their calls for significant delays in implementation amount to a cynical rollback of health protections and should be roundly rejected.

As my colleague, Ellen Vancko, said today: “We already have the systems, tools and institutions in place to deal with any isolated reliability problems that might arise. EPA rules have never caused the lights to go out and these rules will be no exception.”

Forward-thinking companies are prepared

While some companies continue to drag their feet, others such as Public Service Enterprise Group and Exelon have already made the necessary investments in pollution controls. Many plants in the state of Illinois are already in compliance with the rule because of prior state regulations. An analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that in fact 17 states already have mercury standards.

In response to a particularly one-sided article in the Wall Street Journal, two forward-thinking utility company CEOs spoke out in letters to the editor. Ralph Izzo, Chairman, CEO and President of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), wrote:

“The air rules should not be controversial. No one disputes that mercury is harmful to human health or that the technology is available now to reduce mercury emissions dramatically. Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. invested $1.5 billion in our coal-fired power plants, reducing emissions of mercury and acid gases by 90% or more. Those projects created jobs for 1,600 construction workers and added permanent positions at our plants. We are not alone. Nearly 60% of the U.S. coal fleet has mercury-control equipment installed or under construction. The EPA’s air rules will provide the certainty to move forward with large, job-creating investments to modernize America’s electric power infrastructure.”

Similarly, in a recent news article, Paul Allen, Constellation Power’s chief environmental officer said: “It’s entirely possible to comply with these rules and remain a profitable company.” In fact, Allen joined Jackson at the podium today in the release of the rule.

Environmental justice

The impacts of toxic pollution are of particular concern for minority communities. A new report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “Health and Economic Benefits of Clean Air Regulations,” in conjunction with a poll results from “Three-City Survey of African Americans on EPA Regulations, Climate Change and Health,” show how issues of environmental justice are critically involved in EPA regulations such as MATS.  “This report demonstrates that not only do the EPA rules, such as the air toxics rule, make good economic sense, but they will noticeably impact the health and environment of African American populations and relieve burdens that have been disparately borne by this community”, said Ralph B. Everett, Joint Center’s President and CEO.  “Given that low-income communities of color are disproportionately sited in close proximity to industrial facilities, power plants, and heavily traveled roads, it’s clear that these rules will be of enormous benefit to residents in vulnerable communities.”

Let EPA do its job

The last year has seen an incredible onslaught of attacks on the EPA’s authority to just do its job in enforcing the Clean Air Act, including its responsibility to limit carbon emissions. The bottom line is that these regulations bring valuable health benefits to Americans and can help start a much-needed transition to a cleaner energy system. As Dr. Jerome Paulson, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health testified in Congress earlier this year: “Ensuring that children breathe air that is free of chemicals and pollutants is an extremely effective and economical intervention for promoting lifelong health and reducing long term health costs.”

As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, it’s taken a long time to finally get the MATS Rule. Kudos to Administrator Jackson for standing strong in the face of a long and relentless campaign by polluters and their friends!