House Votes to Modify Emissions Limits for Some Coal-Fired Power Plants

Published May 3, 2018

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation modifying Obama-era air pollution rules for certain types of coal-fired power plants.

The House passed the Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act, sponsored by Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA), by a vote of 215–189 on March 8. The bill would set less stringent standards for hydrogen chloride and nitrogen dioxide emissions from power plants that burn coal refuse, a waste byproduct of coal mining, to produce electricity. Such plants are found predominantly in Pennsylvania. The bill awaits action in the Senate.

Going to the MATS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule in 2012, imposing the first-ever nationwide limits on emissions of mercury, arsenic, and various types of metal particulates from power plants. The rule required coal- and oil-fired power plants to install expensive equipment to reduce emissions of the targeted pollutants by as much as 75 percent.

More than 20 states and several mining and energy companies challenged MATS in court, arguing EPA had not accounted for the costs of the rule. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Michigan v. EPA the agency should have taken into account the cost to utilities, consumers, and others before implementing MATS.

EPA’s failure to conduct a cost-benefit analysis violated the Clean Air Act, the court ruled.

“EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion. “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars of economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, dozens of power plants had closed, with their operators saying they found it too costly to make the upgrades necessary to comply with MATS.

‘One Size Fits All’

It is more difficult for power plants burning coal refuse to reduce their emissions to the levels required under MATS, because of the technology involved.

Rothfus says his legislation will benefit the environment and local communities in coal country.

“This is a debate about one-size-fits-all [regulations] coming out of Washington, DC, and the failure of folks in this town at regulatory agencies to not [sic] appreciate nuance of what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Rothfus said in a statement on the House floor. “The bill recognizes the huge success the coal-refuse-to-energy industry is making in Pennsylvania, and especially my district, to make it a healthier and cleaner place to live.”

‘Embrace Waste-to-Energy’

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says environmentalists should praise operators of power plants for burning waste, instead of trying to shut them down.

“Waste is a negative,” said Rucker. “Burning waste to produce electricity transforms a negative into a positive, further vindicating human ingenuity.

“People who tell us we should recycle everything should embrace waste-to-energy,” Rucker said. “That many don’t shows they care much less about the environment than they would have us believe.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.


Anne E. Smith et al., “An Economic Impact Analysis of EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule,” NERA Economic Consulting, March 1, 2012:

Official Connection

Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA):;