States Split on Mercury Standards

Published July 1, 2006

In May, Minnesota and New Hampshire enacted legislation imposing stricter controls than existing federal proposals to limit the emission of mercury from power plants.

Other states, including Delaware, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, are considering such legislation or enacting limits through their respective environmental agencies under orders from their governors.

In all, according to the May 29 edition of Congressional Quarterly, 21 states have notified the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) they intend to produce their own, more restrictive plans to reduce mercury emissions from power plants rather than adopting the Bush administration’s limits and plan of action.

Feds Propose Steep Cuts

There are many natural and human-created sources of mercury in the air, on the ground, and in the waterways. EPA has estimated coal-fired power plants emit on average about 48 tons of mercury into the atmosphere annually. Some of this mercury settles in waterways and is ingested by commercial and sport fish.

In recent years, the states and the federal government have been concerned about the potentially harmful neurological affects of methlymercury, an organic form of mercury, on children whose mothers ingest large quantities of fish during pregnancy. This concern prompted the Bush administration to propose reducing overall mercury emissions from power plants by 69 percent by 2018.

The administration’s plan would have allowed those reductions to come through a “cap-and-trade” system whereby power plants in participating states would be allowed a set amount of mercury emissions. Power plants that were unable to meet their reduction goals would be allowed to purchase emission credits from power plants that were able to exceed their goals. The idea behind the plan was to reduce emissions at the least possible cost.

Some Want Steeper Cuts

Of the states developing their own mercury emission plans, some seem likely to adopt cap-and-trade systems, while others seem wedded to traditional command-and-control approaches, under which the state mandates specific control technologies to meet the new standard. What the states’ respective plans have in common is that they would set much more stringent emission levels and timetables for reductions than the federal proposal.

For instance, Minnesota’s plan would force the state’s largest coal-fired power plants to adopt specific technologies to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015. New Hampshire’s law is designed to cut mercury emissions by 80 percent by 2013, and the state’s largest utility has agreed to install “wet scrubbers” at that point, to reduce emissions.

Power Plants a Minor Source

Industry experts have criticized the states’ actions, and even the Bush administration’s less-stringent proposal, for a couple of reasons. They say mercury emission reductions at U.S. power plants are unlikely to produce any appreciable health benefits, and it is estimated the restrictions will raise energy prices in the affected states, with a disproportionate effect on the poor.

Daniel Simmons, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Natural Resources Task Force, said, “The link between airborne mercury and the accumulation in fish is tenuous at best. But even if the largest source of mercury in fish is pollution from power plants, which is likely not the case, U.S. power plants as a whole are at best a very small part of the problem.”

Simmons also noted, “U.S. power plants contribute less than 1 percent of the global atmospheric mercury. Forty-two percent comes from manmade sources outside the United States–Asia accounts for half, with China’s power plants alone representing about 22 percent.

“And while U.S. emissions from power plants and other sources have decreased during the past decade and continue to do so,” Simmons continued, “mercury deposits in most areas of our country have remained fairly constant because there’s a global cycling of mercury in its various forms through the environment’s waters, soils, and air.”

Steeper Cuts Hurt Poor

Since poor Americans spend a greater proportion of their income on energy than middle-income and wealthy Americans, they will be disproportionately affected by the increase in electricity and natural gas prices that result from the states’ actions.

Observed Simmons, “When one weighs the added costs in terms of energy prices and in terms of employment and trade-offs that the poor may have to make, like forgoing a trip to the doctor or purchasing food or medicine, against the fact that these proposals are likely to produce little or no health benefits, the states’ actions seem truly irresponsible.”

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.