Comments on the Proposed Utility Mercury Reductions and Interstate Air Quality Rules

Published February 24, 2004

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify on the proposed utility mercury reductions and interstate air quality Rules. I am not a scientist. I am, however, somewhat expert in how public policy is made and the unintended impacts it can have on minority and low-income people. I believe this is one such case.

The Bush Administration is proposing dramatic reductions in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from power plants, more in fact than health and environmental experts at the Mercatus Center, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and other respected think tanks say is justified in terms of the health risks and costs involved. By trying to reduce emissions too much, too fast, we risk incurring social costs that far outweigh whatever small and hypothetical health benefits we might be aiming for.

The Administration is softening the blow by offering to allow emission trading, similar to what was done, successfully, to reduce sulfur emissions at a reasonable price. Emission trading means companies with high costs of reducing emissions can buy emission permits from those with low reduction costs, meaning the required reduction takes place at the lowest cost. It’s a good policy, although in this case it is being used to reduce costs that are unnecessary in the first place.

Professional environmental advocates say the reductions are not enough, and they think emissions trading allows some polluters to continue to pollute, harming their neighbors. (Note that I say “professional environmental advocates,” because the overwhelming majority of environmentalists know little about this issue and are not participating in the debate. The newsletters and fundraising letters they receive from the professional environmental advocates thoroughly misrepresent the issue.)

I have no sympathy for their claims. I believe they are wrong.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury emissions and their presence in the air are strongly trending downward (as are all other pollutants), and are expected to keep falling due to technological change and implementation of current standards, even without new legislation. Most of the mercury in the air and entering the Great Lakes today comes either from natural sources or from China and other third world countries that burn coal without any emissions control. More strict standards on power plants here in the U.S. obvious will have no effect on those sources, and consequently have no effect on air or water quality.

There is little hard evidence that eating fish and breathing current ambient levels of mercury pose a health threat, even to children and pregnant women. I know this is a controversial assertion, and I have already admitted that I am not a scientist. So for documentation of my claims, I urge you to go to The Heartland Institute’s Web site at and use its “PolicyBot” search engine to search for “mercury.” You will find nearly a dozen studies and commentaries exposing the junk science behind the environmental movement’s effort to link fossil fuel combustion with mercury emissions and health effects.

So why, really, are environmentalists calling for steep reductions in mercury and other power plant emissions? By demanding unreasonable reductions in mercury, they hope to discourage the use of coal and eventually other fossil fuels (oil and natural gas), which they think will lead either to a Garden of Eden style lower-output economy where most of us are poor but enjoy ourselves, or some science-fiction style advanced-technology economy where windmills, solar panels, and fuel cells generate all the power we need without a smokestack in sight.

Let’s get real. Neither scenario is likely to pan out.

What is most likely to happen–indeed, what environmentalists expect will happen–is that energy prices will rise, economic growth will slow, and unemployment will rise. It is undeniable that when this occurs, black and low-income people will be harmed the most.

Energy costs take a bigger bite out of the budgets of low-income folks than of higher-income folks, so higher energy costs are regressive. Higher energy costs also mean slower economic growth–the American Council for Capital Formation has demonstrated this fact to virtually no rebuttals–and African Americans and the poor are still the “last hired and first fired.” So we get hurt a second time.

And manufacturing is particularly affected by higher energy costs, because manufacturing requires more energy than the service and high-tech sectors of the economy, and higher energy prices therefore make it more difficult for manufacturers in the U.S. to compete with manufacturers located in other countries.

I have to wonder how many of the people in this room, testifying for more strict environmental standards than what the Bush Administration has proposed, work in factories. Not many, I’m sure.

I see wealthy and white environmentalists advocating a feel-good policy without regard to the impact it would have on people of color, lower-income people, and blue-collar workers. The tears they cry for “poor people” exposed to pollutants are insincere. They are indifferent in this case to the suffering their policies impose on the poor and the black community, just as they are indifferent to the suffering caused by their constant advocacy of higher taxes and more regulation of industry.

They are misusing science and ignoring economics. Consequently, I urge you to reject their call for even more draconian reductions in emissions than the President has proposed.

Lee H. Walker is a Director and Senior Fellow of The Heartland Institute and Director of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. He is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Chicago State University Foundation, a Commissioner with the Midwestern (10 States) Higher Education Commission; a trustee of the Illinois State Community College Board System; a member of the Community Advisory Panel of WTTW-TV (PBS); and a member of the Board of the American Fund for the University of the Orange Free State (South Africa). Mr. Walker’s email address is [email protected].