EPA Says Limits On Mercury, Air Toxins Too Expensive For Power Plants

Jan 3, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering the reasoning behind its rule that limits air pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants. An expert says that could lead to the standards’ undoing and more coal pollution in Indiana. 

The agency wants to overturn a finding that says the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) is “appropriate and necessary” — the legal basis for the rule.

When the Obama administration passed the rule, it considered all of the hazardous pollutants that were likely to be reduced at coal and oil-fired power plants, not just the ones it was trying to regulate. So where Obama’s EPA estimated up to $90 billion in public health benefits per year, Trump’s EPA estimated less than $6 million.

But the Trump administration says these side benefits shouldn’t be part of MATS — and that it's too costly for utilities to comply with the standards.

Janet McCabe, who now works for Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, helped develop the rule under the Obama Administration. She says this could set the rule up for a legal challenge and change the way the EPA writes regulations — because several of them consider side benefits.  

"If you quit smoking and your primary desire is to reduce your chances of getting lung cancer, you will also benefit from quitting smoking in many other ways that affect your health positively, right?" McCabe gives as an example.

"You'll reduce chance of stroke, you'll be able to exercise more and that’s healthy. Your breath will smell better, there are all of these other things that are kind of co-benefits."

McCabe says since 2011, MATS has helped the country reduce its mercury emissions by about 80 percent.

“The rule has made a difference and certainly this would not be the right direction to go,” she says.

Utilities have already spent more than $18 billion to comply with MATS — which mostly paid for the cost of better pollution control technologies. McCabe says if MATS goes away completely, it could have big consequences for Indiana, which is primarily powered by coal. 

“It’s certainly possible that utilities would find — if it costs them extra money to run them — that they would stop running them or dial them back,” says McCabe.

But Mark Maassel, president of the lndiana Energy Association, says it's unlikely most utilities would take that route. He says once the technology is already in place, it's not a big cost savings for utilities to stop operating that equipment. 

Maassel says many coal plants shut down as a result of the MATS rule. Due to other economic factors, he says utilities aren't likely to build new coal plants or resurrect old ones. 

What's more, McCabe says state environmental agencies like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management consider how much pollution will be reduced through federal laws when writing their own rules. 

The Trump administration's proposal also concludes that no new technologies or changes in the MATS rule are needed. 

Once the proposal is published to the Federal Registrar, the public has 60 days to comment on it

READ MORE: More Than 100 Staff Leave EPA Region 5 After Trump’s Election

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.