EPA finalises changes to mercury rule

Article by Amanda Doyle

THE US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalised changes to a rule that requires coal and oil-fired plants to reduce emissions of mercury and hazardous air pollutants. It will no longer consider all the health benefits associated with reducing mercury emissions.

In 2012, the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) came into effect under the Obama-era EPA in order to reduce mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired plants and save an estimated 4,200–11,000 lives per year. MATS also assessed the “co-benefits” of the rule, as the technology which reduces mercury emissions also reduces other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as soot and nitrogen dioxide. In December 2018, the EPA under Donald Trump proposed to make changes to this rule to recalculate the health benefits, saying that the rule was not appropriate or necessary.

The savings from the co-benefits were calculated by the previous administration to be US$37bn–90bn/y, but the Trump administration recalculated these benefits to be US$4m–6m/y by only including the effects from mercury rather than the HAPs.

The revised MATS rule was finalised on 16 April and “corrected flaws” in the rule, according to an EPA statement. It said that the projected compliance costs “outweighed the projected monetised HAP-specific benefits”. However, plants must still comply with the mercury emissions standards, which are still in place even with the revised cost analysis.

“Under this action, no more mercury will be emitted into the air than before,” said Andrew Wheeler, EPA Administrator and former coal lobbyist. “This is another example of the EPA, under the Trump Administration, following the law while making reasonable regulatory decisions that are fully protective of the public health and environment.”

According to Reuters, Wheeler said that the change “foreshadows” the EPA’s approach to cost-benefit regulations in the future. The Hill said that Wheeler told reporters that the agency is working on a broader cost-benefit rule for all Clean Air Act regulations.

The revision of the rule was welcomed by the National Mining Association, which said in a statement: “The agency’s action rights a longstanding abuse of regulatory power. While the coal-fuelled plants that were forced out of operation by this illegal rule can’t be resurrected, it’s an important lesson for the future. No rule should be justified on co-benefits alone, and regulation should never be used as a weapon to manipulate the energy market. We’re pleased to see this return to reason from the EPA and hope it sets the standard for a more balanced approach in the future.”

Utility groups have expressed concern over the change in the rule, as they have already invested in clean technology, with some of the cost being covered by consumers. According to S&P Global, the industry has already made US$18bn in capital investments to comply with the rule. Utility trade group Edison Electric Institute said: “The repeal of the underlying legal basis for MATS introduces new uncertainty and risk for companies that still are recovering the costs for installing those control technologies.”

According to The New York Times, the recent push to change several pollution rules appears to be in order to secure the less restrictive rules quickly in case Republicans lose control of Congress and the White House in November following the US elections. Any rule finalised after late May or early June could be overturned quickly by a new government, as regulations and federal rules can be overturned within 60 days of being finalised.

Rachel Cleetus, Policy Director for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “This is a blatant effort to cook the books by eliminating significant categories of public health benefits that would occur as a direct result of the MATS. While Administrator Wheeler claims that the agency will keep the existing mercury standards in place, the decision to go after the underlying basis for the standards is an invitation for industry to kill these vital rules in court.”

Gina McCarthy, President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA Administrator under Obama, said: “If these standards are overturned, there would be nothing to prevent power plants from immediately emitting a range of toxic pollutants – and you can bet they will. Undermining these vital safeguards now also directly threatens the people hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic – making it even harder to breathe and putting people with respiratory illnesses at even higher risk.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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