Dec. 16, 2003 — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a suite of integrated air actions that it says will significantly reduce current levels of power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and mercury.
These include the first ever proposed rule to regulate mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.
The Utility Mercury Reductions proposal signed Monday would cut mercury emissions by nearly 70 percent, while a related proposal to be signed later in the week would deeply cut SO2 and NOx emissions in the eastern United States.
“These actions represent the largest air pollution reductions of any kind not specifically mandated by the Congress,” said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. “They strengthen Clean Air Act regulations and standards to bring Americans the most rapid and significant air quality improvement in a decade.”
The news was immediately greeted with skepticism from parts of the community. Charles Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems in Syracuse University’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, says that the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide rules are similar to those included in the administration’s Clear Skies proposal.
Driscoll claims that the mercury rules are a relaxation of previously proposed rules, and fall drastically short of the mercury emissions reductions proposed by others, including Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.
The proposals include a cap and trade system for plants that emit mercury. Driscoll says the environmental consequences of such a program are yet to be quantified. “There has not been a comprehensive analysis on how trading would alter current patterns of mercury deposition,” he says.
Driscoll co-authored the 2001 publication of “Acid Rain Revisited,” a widely-published report that examines the environmental changes that have occurred since the enactment of regulatory controls mandating a decrease in sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions caused by motor vehicles and the burning of fossil fuels by electric utilities.
SO2 and NOx are key contributors to fine particles (PM2.5) – a pollutant responsible for tens of thousands of illnesses and premature deaths each year. Mercury is a toxic, persistent pollutant that Americans are exposed to primarily through eating mercury-contaminated fish.
The combined actions are expected to significantly reduce mercury emissions to protect young children and reduce adverse health effects by lowering the levels of fine particles and ground-level ozone in the air. Addressing SO2, NOx and mercury in an integrated fashion will produce greater health benefits than would be achieved by stand-alone regulations.
“We are calling for the largest single industry investment in any clean air program in U.S. history,” Leavitt said. “By addressing all of the Clean Air Act requirements for power plants at one time, we help maintain affordable energy prices for American consumers.”
The proposed Utility Mercury Reductions Rule seeks comments on two approaches for reducing the estimated 48 tons of mercury currently emitted each year by coal-burning power plants in the United States. One approach would require coal-fired power plants to install currently available pollution controls known as “maximum achievable control technologies” (MACT) under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. If implemented, this proposal would reduce nationwide emissions of mercury by 14 tons (29 percent) by the end of 2007.
The second approach would set a mandatory, declining cap on the total mercury emissions allowed from coal-burning power plants nationwide. This approach, which allows emissions trading, would reduce mercury emissions by nearly 70 percent from current levels once facilities reach a final mercury cap which takes effect in 2018.
The longer-term cap and trade approach would deliver far greater benefits than the command-and-control alternative. The cap-and-trade approach under the proposed rules would require power plants to meet strict emission caps in two phases. Coordinating the regulation of these three pollutants will help keep costs for consumers down and guarantee significant pollution reduction even as our economy grows. Strict caps, coupled with the flexibility of emissions trading, provide a continuously increasing reward for innovation and the deployment of more effective and less-costly pollution-reducing technologies.
Adoption of the cap and trade approach would require EPA to revise its December 2000 finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate utility hazardous air emissions using MACT standards. EPA proposes such a revision as part of today’s package of proposed actions.
The benefits of a cap and trade approach are dramatic and proven. The Acid Rain Trading Program of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments resulted in more reductions than required, sooner than required with a very high rate of compliance and with no litigation to hold up progress.
The Interstate Air Quality Rule, being proposed later this week, would dramatically reduce and permanently cap SO2 and NOx emissions in the eastern U.S. where these pollutants significantly contribute to unhealthy air quality. The rule will be an important component of EPA’s efforts to implement health-protective fine particle and 8-hour ozone standards.
By significantly reducing airborne pollution, the rule will help states and localities meet these new standards. EPA estimates that the Interstate Air Quality Rule, combined with the non-road diesel rules to be finalized early next year, will allow most areas of the country to meet the fine particle and ozone standards without imposing costly local controls.
“The Bush Administration is committed to protecting public health, and while the Clear Skies Act currently before the Congress is the best approach to reducing power plant emissions, we need to move forward now to help States meet stringent new air quality standards,” Leavitt said, adding, “We remain committed to working with our congressional sponsors to move Clear Skies through Congress to ultimately obtain even further reductions.”
State-by-state modeling information is available at http://www.epa.gov/air/clearskies/where.html.
A section-by-section summary of the Clear Skies Act is available for download as a PDF file from http://www.epa.gov/air/clearskies/section-by-section_summary.pdf.