The Obama administration has adopted tough new limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, winning praise from environmentalists and public health advocates but sparking warnings from industry groups that contend the new regulations are too expensive and will place dangerous pressure on the nation’s electrical grid.
The update to the Clean Air Act comes after a relentless 20-year battle in Washington. It marks the first time the Environmental Protection Agency has curbed power plant emissions of mercury, a known neurotoxin that can be profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women. The administration said cutting mercury in the air could prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths a year.
The announcement marks a strategic shift for the Obama administration, which had labored to mute industry and Republican complaints that environmental rules kill jobs, culminating in a decision this summer to halt standards to cut smog. Since then, the administration has moved to reassure its voter base of its commitment to the environment, most notably by delaying a decision on a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
The Keystone XL pipeline decision and now the mercury rule are political gambles for President Obama, since Republican challengers could push the jobs argument in crucial coal-reliant states like Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Obama put himself squarely behind the mercury decision, releasing a short video in which he underscored the fact that President George H.W. Bush had signed the “bold and necessary” law authorizing the EPA to reduce toxic substances in the air in 1990.
“Over the years, the law was never fully implemented. Special-interest groups kept delaying the process,” Obama said. “Today my administration is saying, ‘Enough.’ We are announcing new, common-sense, cost-effective standards to dramatically reduce harmful air pollution.”
Industry lobbyists and congressional Republicans, who have fought vigorously to halt new clean-air rules, warned of rolling blackouts and massive layoffs in the energy sector if the regulations were implemented. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) vowed to introduce legislation to halt the mercury rule when Congress returns after the holiday break.
“This rule isn’t about public health. It is a thinly veiled electricity tax that continues the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy and is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA’s job-killing regulatory agenda,” Inhofe said in an emailed statement. “I am determined to apply the brakes to President Obama’s runaway regulatory agenda before it wrecks our economy.”
Inhofe’s measure is not likely to progress through the Democratic-controlled Senate, and if it were to get through Congress, Obama almost certainly would veto it.
Many environmentalists praised the new standard as a historic leap in efforts to curtail air pollution.
“We can breathe easier today,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an emailed statement. “Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children.”
Under the new rule, power plants can emit 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. The industry had sought a higher limit, 1.4 pounds. But the EPA arrived at its figure based on a formula set out under the Clean Air Act, and analysts said the agency could not deviate from it. The rule would remove 90% of the mercury spewing into the air, the EPA said.
Companies would have three years to clean up their emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases and nearly 70 other toxic substances, and utilities could appeal for at least one more year while they installed the necessary equipment. Much of the industry has argued that the timetable is too tight and could lead to power outages.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found in an August 2011 report, however, that industry had overstated the effects of the mercury rule and others on electricity reliability, noting that many of the inefficient, 50-year-old coal plants were already being replaced.
The industry itself is divided about the costs and benefits of the mercury rule. Most of the utility sector agrees with Scott Segal, director of the lobbying group Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, in his assertion that the mercury rule is the most far-reaching and potentially devastating federal intervention into the power industry to date.
“It will increase the cost of power, undermining the international competitiveness of almost two dozen manufacturing industries, and it will reduce employment upstream in the mining sectors,” he wrote in an email. “All told, it is anticipated that the rule will result in the loss of some 1.44 million jobs by 2020.”
But about a dozen states have already adopted mercury rules and, according to the EPA, more than half of the country’s coal-fired plants already use the pollution-control technology needed to cut mercury.
Some utilities that comply with their states’ standards contend that those that don’t are trying to stall the inevitable, given how harmful mercury, arsenic and other emissions are. Ralph Izzo, chief executive of Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group, said industry warnings about reliability were overstated and the time had come to limit mercury.
From 2006 to 2010, his company retrofitted its coal-fired plants, creating local jobs without disrupting reliability, Izzo said.
“Let’s hire the engineers and construction crews to get this done,” Izzo said, “rather than spending the next two years hiring lawyers” to fight the rule.