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It’s Finally Time to Regulate Air Toxics

March 15, 2011

Did you know that air emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants — the largest industry emitter of mercury, dioxins, acid gases, and arsenic and nickel and other heavy metals — are not subject to national regulations to protect human health and the environment? Moreover, this surprising lapse in federal protection of human health and the environment has existed for a decade.

Whatever EPA’s rules will say – and we won’t know that for sure until they are announced – they will provide significant environmental and public health benefits beyond today’s intolerable situation. In fact, the new rules will provide even greater public health and environmental benefits than the EPA can yet quantify.

The EPA simply does not quantify all of the economic benefits of the rule; it measures only the benefits of reducing particulate matter. So, the economic benefits of reducing emissions of carcinogens, or heavy metals and respiratory irritants do not show up in the analysis. Nor do the benefits to the ecosystem. That doesn’t mean these benefits are worthless. Far from it. It just means that EPA’s typical benefits analysis is woefully incomplete compared with the actual benefits the American people will experience as a result of a robust rule. Our best guess, however, is that even the EPA estimates – a fraction of the benefits of this rule — will far outweigh the costs.

We also know, based upon data from states that have regulated such emissions from other industries, that environmental benefits of mercury controls, for example, happen quickly and in direct proportion to the emissions reductions achieved. The value to tourism and public health of lifting the fish consumption advisories now in effect in the vast majority of states (because freshwater fish are too contaminated with mercury to be safe to eat) is significant, but likely will not be included in EPA’s benefits analysis.

EPA has all the tools it needs to set air toxics standards that are based on what the best performers achieve now, as the law requires. Because the EPA has undertaken extensive information requests – twice from this industry – we know a lot about the toxics emitted by new and existing plants burning various kinds of fuel in various technological configurations. We also understand the control strategies that have been adopted to meet the smattering of state standards for some air toxics, like mercury. The General Accounting Office released a report in 2009 noting that some existing sources it surveyed were able to achieve deep reductions in mercury emissions (upwards of 98% from inlet), with very little needed additional investment beyond adjustments to existing controls.

Of course, some additional control options will be required for the old dogs in this industry that still operate without any controls at all – but we do know from the history of the Clean Air Act to date that when EPA sets standards, creative solutions are developed by the industry and the lights do not go out.

We need to provide a signal to technology innovators in the industry. Setting a robust air toxics standard that meets the statute’s requirements will be a good first step. Following it up later this Spring and Summer with the Clean Air Transport Rule and a good set of New Source Performance Standards for greenhouse gases will further send that signal.

By intelligent rulemaking, EPA can unleash American ingenuity to develop cleaner technologies for energy generation, and better and more cost-effective controls for existing sources. If EPA balks or stalls, or Congress succeeds in handcuffing the rules, public health and the environment will suffer, certainly, but it will also be a lost opportunity for innovation – the hidden cost of doing nothing. This industry needs a push to move into the twenty-first century, and these rules will certainly help.

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