US Environment Agency Proposes National Standards for Power Plants

21 March 2011

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) flexed its national regulatory muscles last week when it proposed new regulations that would limit toxic emissions of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power. Mercury, arsenic, and other air toxins - all known or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health conditions, according to the EPA - would be reduced through the installation of pollution control equipment.

The rules would be the first-ever national standards established for US power plants as was mandated to be done 20 years ago under the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Under the proposed regulations, all existing and new coal-fired power plants would have to meet established emission limits for mercury while oil-fired plants would be required to meet limits on emissions of metals within four years.

Even though economical technology for controlling toxic air pollution has already been developed and is being employed in newer facilities, power plants remain the largest air polluters in the US.

"They are responsible for 50 percent of mercury emissions, over 50 percent of acid gas emissions, and about 25 percent of toxic metal emissions in the US" says the agency.

EPA figures estimate that through the obligatory installation of technologies like scrubbers, 91 percent of mercury released into the air from coal burning could be prevented.

The EPA says the initiative will result in significant improvements in US public health because illnesses linked to air pollution - such as nervous system damage and cognitive impairment in children, premature deaths and heart attacks - will be significantly decreased.

The well-being of natural habitats such as lakes and streams are also expected by the EPA to improve under the regulations.

For the next 60 days the EPA proposal will be open to public comment from citizens, policy makers, industry, environmental advocates and public health groups.

One obstacle the EPA proposal is expected to encounter is the recent bill passed through a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce by Republican Party members (See Bridges Trade BioRes, 21 February 2011).

The bill is designed to stymie efforts by the Obama administration to use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions linked to climate change. Its budgetary restraints on the EPA are partly responsible for the extended deadline for reporting CO2 emissions announced on 17 March.

Like several other emissions regulations, opponents say to the proposal will result in energy cost increases which, in turn, would push American industry abroad in efforts to maintain competitiveness.

"I think the EPA is overstepping what it should be doing in terms of impacting Americans' ability to compete globally" argued Republican Senator John Barrasso.

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson points out that while the switch could raise electric rates by US$3 to US$4 a month and cost the industry US$11 billion to install the technologies, the regulations would create thousands of jobs and produce savings of up to US$140 billion in health benefits by 2016.

ICTSD Reporting; "EPA Proposes Tougher Air Pollution Rules for Power Plants", BUSINESSWEEK, 16 March 2011; "EPA proposes rules to limit emissions from coal-fired plants," USATODAY, 18 March 2011; "EPA Proposes First US Standard for Coal-Plant Mercury", 16 March 2011;  "EPA Extends Deadline for Reporting CO2 Emissions", REUTERS, 18 March 2011; "News Release from Headquarters", US ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, 16 March 2011; "House Panel Backs Bill Blocking EPA Action on Emissions", WALL STREET JOURNAL, 10 March 2011.

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