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E.P.A. Issues Limits on Mercury Emissions
DECEMBER 21, 2011 E.P.A. Issues Limits on Mercury EmissionsBy JOHN M. BRODERThe Environmental Protection Agency introduced new standards on Wednesday sharply limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from the nation’s 1,400 coal- and oil-burning power plants.
If and when the new rule takes effect, it will be the first time the federal government has enforced limits on mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, said that the regulations, which have taken more than 20 years to formulate, would save thousands of lives and return financial benefits many times their estimated $11 billion annual cost.
“By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health – and especially for the health of our children,” Ms. Jackson said.
President Obama, who in September rejected a proposed E.P.A. rule covering smog-causing emissions as too burdensome to industry, said he was fully supportive of the new regulation. He directed the agency to ensure that companies were given sufficient time and flexibility to meet the new rule.
He said the new rule, formally known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, “represents a major step forward in my administration’s efforts to protect public health and the environment.” (The White House released a video in which the president discusses the rules.)
Coal plant owners don't want to pay to clean up their emissions. They expect tax payers to clean up while they pocket huge profits for polluting our environment.
A number of power plant operators are likely to challenge the new rules in court, saying they are too expensive and will force the premature closing of scores of power plants, eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs and threatening the supply of electricity in some parts of the country.
Scott H. Segal, who represents utilities that will be affected by the new rule, said that the E.P.A. was playing down the costs and double-counting the benefits. “The bottom line,” he said in an analysis of the regulation, “this rule is the most expensive air rule that E.P.A. has ever proposed in terms of direct costs. It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that E.P.A. has ever attempted to implement.”
Environmental advocates challenged Mr. Segal’s analysis, and his views are not universally shared in the power industry. Ralph Izzo, the chief executive of Public Service Enterprise Group, the parent of New Jersey’s largest electric utility, said that his company had spent $1.3 billion to bring his plants into compliance with New Jersey’s air quality rules, which are as stringent as the new federal standard. He said that other utilities had had more than enough notice to clean up their plants in advance of the federal rule announced on Wednesday.
He said the E.P.A. action was “long overdue.” He noted that the Clean Air Act, under which the new standards are issued, gives enough flexibility to allow all power generators to come into compliance without any threat to the reliability of electric supply.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, harming the nervous systems of fetuses and young children and causing lifelong developmental problems. Other pollutants covered by the new rule, including dioxin, can cause cancer, premature death, heart disease, and asthma.
Power plants generally will have up to four years to comply, although waivers can be granted in individual cases to ensure that the lights stay on. The E.P.A. estimates that utilities will be forced to retire plants that currently provide less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s total generating capacity.
The rule is the first national one to put limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic gases from power plants, although more than a dozen states have already imposed such rules on plants within their borders. The George W. Bush administration proposed a rule covering mercury emissions, but environmental and health groups successfully blocked it in court on the ground that it did not meet the minimum standards of the Clean Air Act.
The new federal rule is not based on simple numbers, like pounds per year or per megawatt-hour, but on a scale based on the performance of other power plants; uncontrolled sources will have to do as well as the best-performing sources do now. The rule, in effect, specifies a group of proven cleanup technologies – such as scrubbers or carbon injection systems – rather than precise emissions goals.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, vowed to block the new regulation.
“Sadly, this rule isn’t about public health,” he said in a statement. “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 E.P.A.’s job-killing regulatory agenda.”
The E.P.A. said that when the rules are fully put into effect, they will prevent 90 percent of the mercury in coal burned in power plants from being emitted into the air and reduce 88 percent of acid gas emissions from power plants.
The rule will apply to about 1,400 units that generate electricity by burning coal or oil at 600 separate power plants. (Some have more than one power-generation unit.) About half the coal boilers lack what the E.P.A. calls “advanced pollution control equipment”; some are more than 50 years old.
Other relatively large mercury sources, like medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors, are already controlled and have released their emissions by 95 percent, according to the E.P.A. Some of the reduction was from simple steps like ceasing to incinerate batteries.
The E.P.A. estimated that the rules would eliminate “up to 17,000 premature deaths” per year, along with thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks and emergency room visits.
The impact on the electric system is difficult to quantify, in part because the administration is moving forward on two other major rules affecting power plants, one for plants east of the Rockies that send pollution across state borders, and another governing discharges of warm water. Plant owners may calculate that it is cheaper to build a new plant burning natural gas than to upgrade an old coal-burner.
Susan F. Tierney, a consultant who was an assistant secretary of energy for policy during the Clinton administration and a utility regulator in Massachusetts, said that for plants that were “on the margin” financially, the cross-state rule and the new mercury rule might push them under.
Plants with stronger economics might upgrade to control mercury and other hazardous pollutants, she said, because the water rule was still several years in the future.
Ms. Tierney said the mercury rule was the biggest E.P.A. rule on power plants since the mid-1990s, although other changes could be coming. “Under existing rules, it’s really the next big action-forcing regulation,’’ she said. Eventually, she said, E.P.A. regulation of greenhouse gases could have a broader impact, but that rule is still being written.