EPA, Activists Clash on Mercury Emission Standards

Published November 1, 2004

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new rules that would require U.S. power plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018. Final action on the proposed rules will not be taken until 2005, after EPA considers citizens’ comments on several competing emissions reduction proposals.

EPA Proposes Market-Friendly Reductions

While accepting public comments on several proposals for mercury emission reductions, EPA officials and the Bush administration generally advocate a cap-and-trade approach. With cap-and-trade, power companies that can achieve emission reductions of more than 70 percent efficiently are given “credits” for the extra reductions; they can then sell those credits to other companies that might find it difficult or impossible to meet the 70 percent emissions reduction mandate.

“Our preferred approach takes us away from ‘command and control’ and instead provides a proven, market-based emissions ‘cap-and-trade’ system,” explained EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt earlier this year in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial. “The EPA sets mandatory industry reduction targets–emission caps and dates–and gives utilities flexibility in finding the best way to meet them. This approach has been enormously successful in reducing acid rain since the early 1990s.”

EPA estimates the proposed rule will cost the U.S. economy more than $1 billion per year, and others think it could cost considerably more.

“Clear Skies would reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent, at a cost of about $4 billion per year,” noted American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Joel Schwartz regarding a similar plan to cut mercury emissions by 70 percent, proposed by the Bush administration in 2003.

Activists Seek More Stringent Rule

Some activist groups have opposed the EPA proposal, seeking instead a more stringent, 90 percent reduction that must be met by each and every power plant. Leavitt considered the 90 percent goal unreachable. “In the near future, will there be technology capable of getting a 90 percent reduction of mercury from coal-fired power plants? No. Technology is simply not there for now,” he noted.

“Our proposed rule announced in December [2003] is the first time the EPA has proposed actual limits for power plant mercury emissions,” Leavitt observed. “In 1994, the Clinton administration was sued for failing to control power plant emissions of mercury. It was not until six years later that the EPA, to resolve the suit, committed the Bush administration to propose a formal mercury regulation. We fulfilled this obligation.”

Added Leavitt, “Critics fear cap-and-trade could leave mercury ‘hot spots’ surrounding the highest-polluting power plants. Our 10 years of experience with cap-and-trade demonstrate this will not happen, because the highest-emitting facilities are the first to be cleaned up, where power companies will get the most emissions allowances for their investment dollars. In the unlikely event that hot spots become a problem, the EPA and states already have the authority to address localized environmental and health concerns.”

Reductions May Be Unnecessary

In addition to the debate over goals and reduction mechanisms, there is considerable debate regarding the need for mercury reductions. Recent research indicates even a “complete elimination of mercury from coal-fired utilities would reduce mercury deposition in the U.S. by at most about 10 percent,” said Schwartz in comments submitted to EPA.

Moreover, studies have found no adverse health effects even in persons exposed to high levels of environmental mercury.

“A study of children in the Seychelles reported no harm from mercury exposures several times higher than even relatively highly exposed Americans,” observed Schwartz. “The reported health effects are subtle, and at current American mercury exposure levels have no implications for general neurological or cognitive health.”

Added Schwartz, “EPA’s mercury rule is thus likely to provide few or no health benefits. On the other hand, EPA estimates even modest utility mercury reductions will cost about $1.4 billion per year. These costs will in part be passed through to consumers, reducing the resources available for other health- and welfare-enhancing expenditures.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.