It might surprise many Americans to learn that, until just a couple of weeks ago, there were no federal standards requiring operators of the nation's roughly 600 coal- and oil-fired power plants to limit the amount of mercury, arsenic other toxic pollutants that they discharge into the air.
This despite the fact that the direct and indirect pollution arising from power plants that burn fossil fuels is well known to be deadly. This despite the fact that the technology needed to eliminate the vast majority of these pollutants has been available for years. This despite the fact that these plants, which account for as much as half of all mercury emissions, 75 percent of acid gas emissions, and between 20 and 60 percent of airborne toxic metal pollution, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, also deliver noxious payloads of bronchitis, heart disease, asthma and other ailments to hundreds of thousands Americans annually.
Mercury alone is a potent neurotoxin, and it has been linked to learning disabilities in children. And a disproportionate share of all these pollutants -- and the negative health effects they promise -- fall on minority and low-income Americans.
So it was that representatives of the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Heart Association, the Children's Environmental Health Network, and other organizations celebrated, just before the Christmas holiday, new rules issued by the EPA -- some 20 years in the making -- that will force power plants to clean up these pollutants.
The so-called Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are among several new groups of air pollution standards that were put in place by the Obama administration, and which are now under heated attack by industry opponents and their supporters in Congress.
Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has called on EPA's inspector general to investigate the agency's use of science and peer review in determining the need for the mercury and air toxics rules. A separate EPA measure, which imposes caps on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that cross state lines -- key components in the formation of everything from acid rain to ground level ozone and soot in the eastern part of the U.S. -- was temporarily stayed by a federal appeals court just before New Year's.
That rule has been targeted in dozens of lawsuits, most of them brought by utilities in big-coal states who argue that the standard, like other EPA clean air actions under the Obama administration, will strangle a fragile economy, threaten jobs, cause electricity rates to increase, and hobble power generators who must invest millions installing new pollution controls, or buy credits to comply.
"When it comes to something as simple as keeping the lights on and keeping electricity rates affordable, we shouldn't need a federal court to step in and tell a government agency to stop threatening our power supplies and jobs, said Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement praising the court-ordered hold. "Unfortunately, that's what it came to in this case. The EPA's unprecedented rash of regulations will cost our economy tens of billions of dollars and put at risk tens of thousands of jobs, but it doesn't have to be that way."
Some of the most strident claims, including the notion that these and other regulations will destabilize the electricity grid, appear to have little foundation. The Department of Energy, for example, conducted an extensive analysis of the potential impact of both the mercury and air toxics rule and the cross-state pollution rule on the reliability of the nation's electricity systems. In results published early last month, the agency concluded that the measures would "not create resource adequacy issues."
As for job losses and the threat of economic damages, these, too, have proven to be somewhat overstated. One prominent study, conducted by the progressive, non-partisan Economic Policy Institute suggested that while some jobs will almost certainly be lost as a result of higher energy prices, those losses will be slightly offset by jobs the regulation actually helps create -- including between 80,000 and 100,000 jobs in the "pollution abatement and control" industry.
There is no question that the various EPA rules will cost utilities billions of dollars, and force many older coal-burning plants -- categorically the worst polluters -- to shutter. But analyses from DOE, EPI and other organizations have routinely shown that this will have no measurable impact on their ability to deliver electricity to customers. Indeed, a number of utilities -- chiefly those who anticipated stricter federal pollution standards and took steps to install controls years ago -- have come out in support of new EPA rules.
Others have pointed out that coal interests in the United States are threatened at least as much -- and probably more -- by cheap and plentiful natural gas reserves as they are by tough pollution standards.
And of course, all of this can seem can seem a rather cynical departure from the metric that really matters: human life and health.
Here, EPA has estimated that the mercury and air toxics rule alone could prevent 11,000 premature deaths annually and avoid as much as $90 billion in health care costs. The cross-state rule, according to the agency's analysis, will result in somewhere between $120 and $280 billion in health and environmental benefits annually and avoid between 13,000 and 34,000 premature deaths.
An independent analysis of these and four other new EPA air quality regulations by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, found that the while the cost of implementing the new regulations would be nearly $200 billion over the next 20 years, the benefits, in terms of avoided health costs and other advantages, could easily top $1 trillion.
Not everyone is convinced. In an editorial late last month, for example, the Wall Street Journal joined other critics in pointing out that most of the benefits that EPA attributes to the mercury and air toxic rules arise not from reduced mercury or acid gas emissions, but from ancillary reductions in the formation of microscopic particles that contribute to the formation of soot -- a documented killer.
Emissions of particulate matter are already regulated under other rules, the newspaper argues, and counting their reduction as a side-effect of the mercury rule amounts to an "an abuse of the cost-benefit process."
To be sure, EPA's analysis of the rule does not clearly quantify the direct benefits of mercury and air toxic reductions, and the majority of the enumerated benefits arise from these so-called "co-benefits." But Betsaida Alcantara, an EPA spokeswoman, said that if anything, the benefits of the new rules have been underestimated. "There are many other health effects associated with toxic air pollution like chromium, nickel and arsenic that we are unable to put a dollar figure on - serious effects such as cancer, and respiratory effects in children will be avoided as a result of these safeguards," she said in an email. "What the health science tells us is that the American people will benefit greatly from reductions in pollution."
Janice E. Nolen, who directs national policy and advocacy initiatives for the American Lung Association, put it another way: "We don't currently have models to estimate the benefits of children not having neurological processes disrupted by mercury," she said. "The data just isn't available the way that it is for particulate matter -- which means what's really going on is that we're only looking at a fraction of the benefits."