EPA’s New Air Pollution Rule: Bad? Good?

The Environmental Protection Agency says we will be able to breathe a little easier starting on January 1, 2012.

Yesterday, EPA finalized the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. As described by the agency, the new rule “requires 27 states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that contribute to ozone and/or fine particle pollution in other states.” Reductions in acid rain are also anticipated. The first round of emissions reductions are to take effect on January 1, 2012.

States affected by the new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. Click for interactive version on epa.gov. (Source: EPA)

More specifically, the rule requires reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) from power plants in the 27 states. NOx emissions contribute to ground-level ozone pollution, smog, fine particle pollution, and acid rain. SO2 emissions contribute to fine particle pollution and acid rain.

By EPA’s estimates [pdf], to satisfy the rule’s requirements, power plants can do the following:

  • Maximize the use of installed pollution control technology for SO2 and NOx (including running clean units more than would otherwise occur),
  • Use lower sulfur coal or switch fuels; and/or
  • Install or upgrade pollution-control equipment, such as low NOx-burners or scrubbers.

What’s the Scuttlebutt?

For some, regulation has become a dirty word (see here, here and here), and so EPA’s new rule on air pollution emissions from power plants is apt to get some pretty strong condemnation.

For example, coal-fired power plants in the targeted states will be the hardest hit by the new rule, so it’s not surprising coal industry folks would be critical. Indeed they are, but the criticism is rather muted. Here are two quotes from Steve Miller, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity:

“The E.P.A. is ignoring the cumulative economic damage new regulations will cause.” (Wall Street Journal)

“America’s coal-fueled electric industry has been doing its part for the environment and the economy, but our industry needs adequate time to install clean coal technologies to comply with new regulations. Unfortunately, E.P.A. doesn’t seem to care.” (New York Times)

Some politicians were a little more pointed in their condemnation:

“Heavy-handed and misguided” says Texas Governor Rick Perry (San Antonio Times)

“Another blow” says U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the San Antonio Times, the Texas Republican who warns about the spectre of “unplanned outages.” (Newstimes.com)

But not everyone was critical. One of the most vocal supporters of the rule is none other than EPA itself, which has been touting data suggesting the rule will have a striking net benefit:

  • Improving air quality for 240 million people,
  • Providing up to $280 billion in annual health benefits, including the prevention of:
    o  up to 34,000 premature deaths,
    o  15,000 nonfatal heart attacks,
    o  19,000 cases of acute bronchitis,
    o  400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and
    o  1.8 million sick days a year beginning in 2014.
  • Costing only $800 million in 2014, plus the roughly $1.6 billion per year in capital investments already underway from Clean Air Interstate Rule, the previous rule from 2005.

And folks from the environmental advocacy realm are jumping for joy:

“This is the biggest leap forward in our long history of dealing with this [pollution] problem. … This is a very deep cut on a very aggressive schedule and essentially enough to end chronic acidification of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks.”  —John F. Sheehan, Adirondack Council (New York Times)

Michael Bradley of the Clean Energy Group pooh-poohed predictions of power shortages and economic hardships, claiming that “the industry is well positioned to comply with this, has been anticipating this for three to four years now” and making his own predictions that a relatively small number of the oldest and dirtiest plants will have to be closed.

Who to believe in all this? I imagine your choice will largely depend on your political persuasion. But one thing to keep in mind: Remember all the predictions of catastrophe as Congress contemplated passage of the Clean Air Act and the related acid rain legislation? As described here and here, they proved to be mostly hot air.

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