EPA Lays Groundwork for Avoiding Future Power Plant Mercury Rules

By Amena H. Saiyid

Reopening mercury pollution limits for power plants—over the objections of utilities that have already spent billions to comply—lays groundwork for the EPA to limit its own ability to require more stringent emissions standards in the future.

The Environmental Protection Agency intends to reconsider whether health benefits from reducing pollutants such as airborne particles that aren’t regulated by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule can be used to justify its estimated $9.6 billion price tag. The mercury standards are up for review in 2020, and the current reconsideration may eliminate health benefits from reducing pollutants not directly covered by the rule, making it much more difficult for the EPA to justify the costs of requiring further emissions reductions.

“More than anything, it is an attempt to end the use of these cobenefits to justify the regulations,” Seth Schwartz, president of Arlington, Va.-based Energy Ventures Analysis Inc., an energy consultancy that specializes in market impacts of technology and policy trends, told Bloomberg Environment.

The health benefits of the mercury standards, issued by the Obama administration in 2012, were estimated between $37 billion and $90 billion. But as much as 89 percent of that comes from reducing airborne particles, which weren’t regulated by the rule but would be captured by the same pollution controls that were required. The Trump EPA has clamped down on the use of those so-called cobenefits as a means to justify regulations as it replaces Obama-era rules with less-stringent standards.

Cobenefits Scrutinized

The EPA already has started to eliminate use of those ancillary health benefits as it moves to roll back the first-ever carbon dioxide pollution standards for power plants and joint fuel economy standards for greenhouse gas emissions for model years 2021-2026 for cars and light trucks.

But the EPA declined to spell out how this reexamination will play into the risk and technology review that already is underway

Some utilities and coal mining companies asked the EPA to reexamine the benefits of the toxic air pollution standards (RIN:2060-AP52, RIN:2060–AR31 even though most power plants are already complying. National utility groups representing public and private utilities have been exhorting the EPA to retain the rule, saying they already have invested $18 billion on pollution controls.

Health Improvements Double Counted

Despite that, Schwartz and other consultants said the EPA should proceed with its reexamination because they claim the Obama EPA repeatedly counted the benefits of airborne particle pollution reductions to justify unrelated regulations.

“It can’t be double counted, triple counted, counted 20 times,” Gale Hoffnagle, senior vice president and technical director at TRC Environmental Corp. in Windsor, Conn., an engineering and consulting firm, told Bloomberg Environment.

Taking away those pollution reductions, and just looking at benefits of curbing mercury and other toxics would make it harder for the EPA to justify the costs of more stringent regulation in the upcoming review of mercury standards.

“When EPA does complete its review of the MATS rule, the benefits of meeting the air toxic pollution limits will come out to be much smaller than what the agency calculated in the past, and much smaller than the costs for meeting those pollution limits,” Janet McCabe, former EPA acting air chief during Obama’s second term, told Bloomberg Environment.

The EPA said in its current review that it wants to strike a balance between the actual benefits of reducing pollution under the air toxics rule and the additional benefits of seeing reductions in airborne particle pollution, which has been closely linked with respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

All Part of Coal Strategy

Other former EPA officials see the EPA move as yet another instance of the Trump administration’s effort to immunize the power sector from regulation, and to shore up the coal industry.

“I think there is a war that current management at EPA is waging against benefits, and we have seen that war being staged at several battlefronts,” Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program who served as the EPA’s associate assistant administrator for climate and senior counsel in the agency’s air office during the Obama administration.

McCabe and Goffman said the current management at the EPA is challenging what has been a longstanding practice at the agency across party lines. The issue is likely to wind up in court because the Clean Air Act doesn’t spell out how the EPA should treat cobenefits, they said.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s approach of excluding those additional pollution reductions will result in a “push toward less regulation,” Schwartz said.