The Trump administration is set to propose retaining Obama-era restrictions on mercury pollution from power plants, while simultaneously pushing for changes that will make it difficult to further strengthen mercury emissions standards in the future.
According to reports from Bloomberg, the Environmental Protection Agency will do so in an attempt to satisfy both the coal producers who have objected to the current mercury standards since they were imposed in 2012, and the many electric utilities that have already spent billions of dollars to comply with the mandate.
The EPA is reportedly poised to propose changes that will negate the legal justification for the current mercury regulation and change the way in which the health benefits of the mandate are measured, thereby making it difficult for the regulations to become any more strict in the years to come.
The 2012 rule was designed to target coal-fired power plants, the United States' largest source of mercury, a metal that has been shown to cause motor function deficits, lower IQs, nervous system damage and an increase in heart attacks when converted in soil and water into a neurotoxin.
Unsurprisingly, the mercury mandate was unpopular with the coal industry, and led to multiple coal-fired plant closures. Coal magnate Robert E. Murray became the public face of the industry's opposition to the regulations, and has spent years fighting them in court and arguing that they have negatively impacted domestic sales. Murray Energy is one of the companies still advocating for a rollback of mercury regulations by Trump, who campaigned against what he characterized as onerous regulations on coal.
On the opposite side of the issue, however, are power companies lobbying the White House to let the current mercury standards remain as they are. This summer, industry trade groups told the EPA that utilities have already collectively spent $18 billion installing technology required by the mandate to satisfy its 2015 compliance deadlines.
Power companies have spent $18 billion installing technology required by the 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards regulations
"We've been in compliance for a number of years now, the equipment is operating and it is effective. We really see no reason at all to roll back the requirements," John McManus, senior vice president of environmental services at American Electric Power Company Inc, told Bloomberg. "Retired plants aren't coming back, and we see no reason to turn back the controls that are running on our existing plants."
Similarly, AEP has spent $8.8 billion since 2001 on environmental equipment retrofits at its coal-fired power plants, and retired 7,200 megawatts of coal-fired generation from 2011 through 2016, both of which have contributed to a 95 percent decrease in mercury emissions from its plants over the last 17 years.
Though the 2012 mercury standard itself is set to remain, the legal framework underpinning the regulation is set to be undone by the EPA.
The agency will do so by withdrawing its assertion that the requirements are "appropriate and necessary," which provides the legal justification under the Clean Air Act.
This alteration could lay the grounds for legal opponents of the mercury standards to win a court-ordered repeal of the regulations, though a 2008 ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals pertaining to an earlier mercury rule might still doom any efforts to fight the rule through litigation.
The EPA will also adapt a new method for calculating the health benefits of the mercury standard, in a way which would dramatically reduce the number of such benefits.
Currently, the agency counts any health "co-benefits" that arise as an indirect result of the mercury rule, such as reductions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that occur due to technology implemented to limit mercury emissions. Now, the EPA is poised to claim that because the regulation is based on the Clean Air Act, it would be improper to measure any benefits other than the reduction of toxic air pollutants.
Creating this new system for quantifying the success of the mercury standard could reduce the likelihood that even more restrictive regulations are adopted in the future.
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