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New EPA Rules Target Power Plants’ Toxic Mercury Emissions

December 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new standards Wednesday to curb mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fueled power plants around the country. Gwen Ifill discusses the announcement with the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council's Scott Segal and the Natural Resources Defense Council's John Walke.
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GWEN IFILL: The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new rules today to curb mercury emissions from the nation’s power plants. The standards apply to roughly 600 coal- or oil-fueled power facilities. They will have to either reduce their emissions or shut down.

The battle over the rules stretches back two decades. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said today the new regulations of multiple pollutants would save lives and clean the air.

LISA JACKSON, Environmental Protection Agency: And this is a suite of air toxic standards. It is mercury. It is arsenic. It is cadmium. It is chromium. It is cyanide. It is hydrochloric acid. It is hydrofluoric acid. And because the pollution control technology that will go on these plants will also get some soot out of the air, it means, by addressing some toxics, we’re actually addressing a suite of toxics and getting a lot of health benefits.

GWEN IFILL: But there’s a reason the rules have taken so long to take effect.

For more on that, we get two views.

Scott Segal is director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an energy industry trade group, and John Walke is clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

John Walke, how big is the problem which the EPA now says they’re trying to solve?

JOHN WALKE, Natural Resources Defense Council: This is the most significant clean air and public health achievement in a generation.

And it is a huge problem, with coal-burning power plants emitting more toxins into America’s air than any other source of pollution. So, cleaning them up is a huge success story to celebrate.

GWEN IFILL: Scott Segal, do you see it the same way?

SCOTT SEGAL, Electric Reliability Coordinating Council: Well, I don’t.

I will say that it’s a very big, significant achievement on the part of the EPA, in the sense that it represents the most expensive air rule potentially in EPA history. It represents the greatest intervention into the power marketplace and, for that matter, the job marketplace in a generation as well.

I guess what I would say is that, over the last 20 years, we have had about a 67 percent reduction in primary emissions coming from power plants, including mercury emissions and particulate matter emissions, without this rule. What this rule adds is a substantial amount of cost at the — frankly, at the expense of American job creation and the competitiveness of our manufacturing sector.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about cost. The administrator said today $11 billion. Is that — that sounds expensive.

JOHN WALKE: It’s nearly $10 billion. The administrator also said that the health benefits to the American people would outweigh those costs by nearly 10-1, yielding benefits up to $90 billion or more.

What we have to recognize today is that the dirty power sector in America is imposing health costs on the American people of nearly $100 billion or more by not cleaning up their own pollution. And what this does is, it makes the actors responsible for that pollution clean up.

That’s fair. That’s reasonable. It will create jobs in the process from cleaning up those plants. And all of us will benefit.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s backtrack for a moment. When you say health costs, what do you mean?

JOHN WALKE: Well, power plants are producing air pollutions that causes neurotoxic damage to children and the unborn, heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks. People are going to the hospital. They’re missing work. They are going to the E.R.

And when we clean up power plants, we avoid those health costs to American families, to the economy. We get people back to work. And we have a healthier and more successful country.

GWEN IFILL: Those kind of costs, do they outweigh the benefits, or do the benefits outweigh the costs, depending on how you define each?

SCOTT SEGAL: Well, first things first.

Policies that maintain air quality in the United States are important and they should be advanced. I agree with that. The problem is, this rule does not do that. The incremental health care benefits associated with this rule in our judgment are virtually zero. And here’s why.

Most of the benefits — and, by that, I mean 99 percent of the benefits — don’t come from mercury, but come from control of soot, sometimes called particulate matter. However, these are well-controlled emissions. And in fact the EPA is attempting to claim benefits, when those same areas that it claims those benefits already attain standards that protect human health and the environment.

So what the EPA is essentially doing is double-counting the benefits that already arise under the Clean Air Act. That’s unacceptable. In fact, there’s recent material out from Professor Susan Dudley over at George Washington University, head of the Regulatory Studies program, that indicated incremental benefits, zero, in fact, costs so high that the increased cost of electricity and the increase in unemployment could result in greater threats to public health than this rule would purportedly address in the first instance.

GWEN IFILL: I want to get back to those other costs.

SCOTT SEGAL: Sure.

GWEN IFILL: And I want to give you an opportunity to respond to that question that they’re double-counting these health benefits.

JOHN WALKE: Gwen, if that sounds overly complicated, it’s because the truth is far simpler.

When you clean up toxic air pollution from power plants using a handful of control equipment, you are simultaneously reducing the deadly pollution that causes heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and other illnesses.

We should celebrate that outcome. And what Lisa Jackson said today is this rule is delivering more health benefits to the American people, outweighing costs by about 10-1, and it’s causing the polluters responsible for the problems to clean up their own pollution.

GWEN IFILL: But are they paying more in other ways? Are they paying more for their electricity? Does electricity become less reliable because there are going to be fewer plants?

JOHN WALKE: Those are good questions.

EPA estimates that any electric rate impacts would be on average about 3 percent to consumers. And, in return, we’re getting $100 billion in benefits to the economy and the health of the American people. EPA and the Department of Energy have said that there is not going to be an impact on electricity and keeping the lights on.

In fact, these plants could lead to the retirement of less than half of 1 percent of all electricity producers in the United States. So that is not going to cause problems in meeting electric needs.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s one of the things I’m curious about, Scott Segal, which is, how many of these plants were going to close anyway? They’re out of date, they were tired, and now need to be retired. So this would not have the kind of effect that perhaps some coal or energy producers would worry about.

SCOTT SEGAL: Well, there’s no doubt that some of these plants would retire over the natural course of things and under market conditions.

The question we have to ask ourselves, it doesn’t make sense to try and retire all of them simultaneously, and in so doing endanger about 8 percent of U.S. electricity. That’s like taking three states offline. If a foreign power were to try and do that, we would regard it as a threat.

So, the bottom line is this. We do expect that there will be significant increases in electric power costs. In fact, in some areas of the country that are more heavily dependent on coal-fired power, we’re looking at costs as high as a 20 percent increase.

GWEN IFILL: Would it all — but would it all. . .

SCOTT SEGAL: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: . . .happen simultaneously?

JOHN WALKE: No, of course not.

The agency is providing many years to clean up these plants or decide whether the businesses want. . .

GWEN IFILL: Four years?

JOHN WALKE: Four years, with the opportunity for more time if plants decide that they — or find that they can’t meet the standards.

President Obama issued a very sensible and reasonable memorandum today laying out the steps that are available under the law. The agency is committed to doing that. The Energy Department knows that we can meet our electric needs. So, you know, you’re seeing a lot of, you know, fear-mongering from some quarters of the utility industry — not my friend Scott — and what you — you know, what you see are plants that have cleaned up already and know that we can and should.

And some of the plants that haven’t cleaned up are fighting this tooth and nail in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: But your friend Scott said a few moments ago this is going to cost jobs.

SCOTT SEGAL: It will cost jobs. In fact, one of the best economic analyses performed by a very reputable economic consulting firm indicated that we will lose about 1.44 million net jobs, meaning taking into account the job creation John referred to earlier with respect to air pollution compliance jobs. The bottom line. . .

GWEN IFILL: . . .retrofitting the plants would create jobs, but not for long.

SCOTT SEGAL: For every one of those job which exists on a temporary basis, because as soon as the retrofit is done, that job is over — for every one of those jobs created, four of those jobs in manufacturing sectors, mining, or in the power sector are likely to be lost.

That’s a tradeoff we can ill afford. You know we’ve had so much debate, Gwen, about the payroll taxes and about giving $1,000 to middle — to middle-class families. It would be a shame to achieve that benefit of a tax holiday and, in the same notion, give back the $1,000 in increased — in increased utility bills to the middle class.

GWEN IFILL: Your friend John is shaking his head.

JOHN WALKE: Gwen, that notorious study just proves the adage that lobbyists can pay consultants to say anything in Washington.

The truth is that, when EPA and the Energy Department conducted the most exhaustive analysis of all the competing studies and information out there, they found that these rules are expected to produce construction jobs, good-paying construction jobs of two to three years for over 40,000 American workers, and permanent long-term jobs operating the cleanup equipment of over 10,000 jobs.

So, you know, these numbers that Scott’s putting forward were paid for by industry, and they stand in stark contradiction with what EPA is saying.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, we — it wasn’t that long ago we were sitting probably at this table discussing the administration’s rolling back of its plan to put tighter restrictions in place for smog regulations.

And you weren’t very happy about that at the time.

You were not so unhappy about it.

Is the administration being tougher than they need to be, or are they not being tough enough?

JOHN WALKE: When the administration makes a wrong decision, we say so. But this is a historically right and successful achievement that should be celebrated.

These standards are historic accomplishments that will produce a generational improvement in air quality. And they followed the science and the law. And all Americans will benefit from this.

GWEN IFILL: Scott Segal?

SCOTT SEGAL: And as we see it, tremendous additional cost, both in the power bill and also in job creation in 20 different industrial sectors that are highly energy-intensive and exist in an international marketplace, and all of that for virtually no incremental health benefits. It’s a bad deal for America, and at a very bad time to conduct such a deal.

GWEN IFILL: Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, and John Walke of the National — Natural Resources Defense Council, thank you both very much.

SCOTT SEGAL: Thanks.

JOHN WALKE: Thank you.