toxic smokestacksCross-posted from the World Resources Institute. The post was written by Nicholas Bianco, senior associate for WRI’s climate and energy program.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares to release new mercury and air toxics standards, some people may be wondering about the history and timeline for these standards. One senator recently claimed that EPA is “charging ahead” with them.

These standards, however, have been in development for over 20 years. These are standards that many plants are already meeting. Furthermore, 11 of the 15 largest coal utilities, roughly half of the nation’s coal fleet, have informed their shareholders [PDF] that they are well positioned to meet them.

This post unwraps the history, standards, and timelines for compliance.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Why regulate mercury and air toxics?

Power plants are significant emitters of mercury, a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children and developing fetuses. Power plants are also significant emitters of a variety of other hazardous air pollutants, such as arsenic, nickel, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride, which can cause a variety of cancer and non-cancer effects (such as irritation of the lung, skin, and mucus membranes, nervous system damage, and kidney damage).

When EPA issued the proposed version of these standards in May, it projected [PDF] that they would have public health benefits in the range of $53 billion to $140 billion, and would come at a total cost of only $11 billion. Thus, the health benefits would be five to 13 times greater than the economic costs of compliance.

History of mercury regulation in the Clean Air Act

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The path towards regulating toxic emissions from power plants began in earnest back in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act amendments that had been passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress.

Those amendments required EPA to assess where mercury emissions were coming from, their impact, and the viability of reducing emissions. After much delay (and a lawsuit), EPA finally issued that study [PDF] in 1998, and two years later concluded [PDF] it is necessary, in the interest of public health, to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired plants.

In 2004, EPA proposed the first national mercury standards. Shortly after those regulations went into effect, however, the federal Circuit Court of Appeals threw them out. The court found that EPA had improperly attempted to treat mercury as a non-hazardous pollutant, and directed the agency to follow the statutory requirements for hazardous air pollutants.

Later this week, EPA is expected to finalize rules consistent with the hazardous air pollutant provisions. The new rules will require reductions beginning in 2014, 24 years after EPA was first directed to investigate regulating mercury emissions from power plants.

The Clean Air Act requirements

The Clean Air Act is very clear about EPA’s regulation of hazardous air pollutants:

  • The act requires EPA to establish limitations that are no less stringent than the “average emission limitation achieved by the best-performing 12 percent of the existing sources.”
  • It further requires that sources comply within three years. That timeline can be extended by one year if the state, or EPA, determines that it is necessary for the installation of controls.
  • It is possible to further extend these deadlines in rare cases in which the president determines that the technology is not available and that it is in the national security interests of the United States to extend the deadline.
  • EPA or the state implementing the regulations may also exercise its discretion when enforcing the act in specific circumstances. Enforcement discretion may buy some plants additional time in the form of administrative consent decrees that put the plant on a schedule for compliance or shutdown.

It is also worth noting that EPA’s rules will be effective this January, more than six months before electricity demand [PDF] starts to rise in most regions, thus providing additional compliance time for some of the high emitting plants that run infrequently.

The electricity system can handle new mercury standards

Though some have raised concerns that EPA rules could lead to blackouts, a close look at these claims suggests the fears are unwarranted.

The hazardous air pollutant provisions have been used more than 50 times since the passage of the 1990 amendments, on everything from semiconductor manufacturing to petroleum refineries and dry cleaning.

In addition, the reductions that EPA is requiring are realistic:

  • EPA recently conducted an information collection request to assist the rulemaking process, and found that [PDF] nearly 60 percent of the 178 coal respondents were already meeting the proposed standard.
  • Seventeen states have their own mercury control programs.
  • Six of those states [PDF] have standards more stringent than those proposed by EPA, and several of them have timelines more stringent than those imposed by the Clean Air Act.

In the event a company decides that it is uneconomic to install controls at a particular plant, there is reason to believe that these plants can be replaced in the necessary time frame. For example, both ISO-New England and PJM (who are responsible for ensuring the reliable operation of the electric grid in all or most of 13 states in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest) have forward-looking markets designed to ensure that there are adequate generation resources in their regions. These are known as capacity markets.

Both of these markets address generation needs three years out, as that was determined to match the lead time required for the construction and development of new capacity. As discussed previously, three years is the minimum amount of time provided under the Clean Air Act, and there are several ways in which these deadlines can be extended if necessary.

Keep in mind that retirement isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Many of the uncontrolled plants are more than 50 years old [PDF], and will eventually need to be replaced with newer, more efficient plants.

There are a number of underutilized [PDF] clean plants, and there is some evidence that they are not running because the older, less efficient plants have been able to skirt regulation.

It is time that we correct this. These rules are long overdue. A number of states have already taken action. Many plants are already in compliance with the new standards. Most importantly, these are standards that will bring considerable public health benefits. We should not delay action any longer. It is time that the rest of the plants catch up.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.