EPA Publishes Absurd Mercury Reg; Sen. Inhofe Counters; House Sleeps

by William Yeatman on February 16, 2012

in Blog

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Today, the Environmental Protection Agency published in the Federal Register the ridiculous Mercury and Air Toxics rule. It’s one of the most expensive regulations, ever, and its purpose is to protect America’s supposed population of pregnant, subsistence fisherwomen who consume more than 300 pounds of self-caught fish annually, from the 99th percentile most polluted fresh, inland water bodies. EPA never actually identified any such “victim”; instead, these voracious fisherwomen-cum-child were modeled to exist. In a series of posts on “EPA’s Big Mercury Lie,” I question whether it is reasonable to simply assume, as EPA has done, that there are, in fact, Americans who every year eat more than 300 pounds of fish, caught exclusively from the foulest water.

How did we get here? Below is a bare-bones timeline of the Mercury and Air Toxics rule’s development:

  • 1990: The Congress amended the Clean Air Act to beef up Hazardous Air Pollutants section 112, which sets the most stringent emissions controls. However, the Congress exempted coal fired power plants. Why? Because the same amendments to the Clean Air Act included a major new regulatory regime for coal-fired power plants: namely, a new sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade program to fight acid rain. Before it subjected the electricity industry to the most onerous provision of the Clean Air Act, in addition to the public health regulations to which generators and utilities already were beholden, Members of Congress first wanted to understand how the sulfur dioxide program would affect emissions of hazardous air pollutants. So, the Congress ordered EPA to conduct a study to determine the public health threat of toxic air pollution from coal fired power plants, after the implementation of the sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade. EPA could regulate coal-fired power plants under the Hazardous Air Pollutants section 112 of the Clean Air Act only after considering the results of this study, and then making a determination that doing so is “necessary” and “appropriate.”
  • 1998: EPA published the report, “Study of Hazardous Air Pollutant Emissions from Electric Utility Steam Generating Units—Final Report to Congress.”  The study identifies mercury as the hazardous air pollutant of most concern from coal-fired power plants. Direct mercury emissions aren’t the problem; rather, mercury emissions settle upon water bodies, and are then incorporated into the food chain. There is evidence that ingested mercury could cause developmental disorders in fetuses. This is why pregnant women are advised to cut back on sushi. However, this mercury risk must be placed in context. In 1998, when EPA released the study, global mercury emissions were about 5,000 tons, of which 2,000 were anthropogenic. U.S. coal-fired power plants accounted for about 50 tons. In light of this tiny contribution to a global phenomenon, it is difficult to isolate and measure the deleterious public health impacts caused by U.S. power plants, if any. Ultimately, EPA’s study punted on whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate the power sector. It stated,

At this time, the available information, on balance, indicates that utility mercury emissions are of sufficient potential concern for public health to merit further research and monitoring. The EPA recognizes that there are substantial uncertainties that make it difficult to quantify the magnitude of the risks due to utility mercury emissions, and that further research and/or evaluation would be needed to reduce these uncertainties.

  • 1998-2009: U.S. power sector mercury emissions fall from 50 tons to 29 tons. Global anthropogenic mercury emissions rise, due to coal-powered economic growth in Asia.
  • January 2009: Barack Obama sworn in as President. During his campaign, he told the San Francisco editorial board that his policies would “bankrupt” coal.
  • December 2011: EPA finalizesd Mercury and Air Toxics rule. The Agency explains that it is “necessary and appropriate” to subject power plants to the ultra-onerous Hazardous Air Pollutants section of the Clean Air Act, in order to protect women super-anglers living along the most polluted fresh, inland bodies of water, who ignore the state and federal warning against eating any self-caught fish, and instead eat 300 pounds of self caught fish a year, while pregnant.

EPA estimates the regulation would cost $10 billion per year. Industry estimates are much higher. At a minimum, it’s one of the most expensive regulations, ever. Ralph L. Roberson, President of RMB Consulting & Research, Inc last week testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that, “In essence, EPA has adopted standards that prevent the country from building new coal-fueled units.”

Already the regulation has led to job losses and increased electricity prices caused by power plant closures. As I explain here, we don’t know whether the rule will shutter enough generation to turn out the lights, but we do know that EPA’s reliability analysis is unreliable.

Simply put, the Mercury and Air Toxics rule is all pain and no gain. It costs billions, kills jobs, raises energy prices, and threatens blackouts, all to protect a population that exists only in EPA’s computers. As such, good-government proponents like me were heartened this morning when Sen. James Inhofe filed a joint resolution of disapproval pursuant to the Congressional Review Act that would effectively repeal this nonsensical regulation.

Sen. Inhofe’s press release succinctly explains how the Congressional Review Act works:

The Congressional Review Act (CRA) provides for an expedited Senate floor procedure to overturn executive agency rules by a simple majority vote.  If passed by both chambers and signed into law, the joint resolution would effectively send the rule back to EPA to be rewritten in conformance with Congressional direction.

Contrary to claims, disapproved rules don’t necessarily require statutory reauthorization before further agency action can occur.   Rather, an agency’s ability to issue a new rule depends on the nature of its regulatory authority and the specific objections raised by Congress to the disapproved rule.

EPA has broad authority and discretion to regulate hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  As such, in the event the Utility MACT rule and its “Franken MACT” approach were disapproved, it would not be barred from seeking achievable, cost effective emissions reductions from power plants.

To be sure, I applaud and agree with Sen. Inhofe’s intent, but I disagree with the strategy. It would be much better if the majority party in the House first passed a CRA repeal of the mercury regulation, before such an effort was undertaken by the minority party in the Senate. This would lend Big Mo to the CRA resolution, and make it much likelier to succeed in the upper chamber.

A Woman February 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

If guy’s dicks went limp from mercury, maybe you’d take the mercury issue serisously. But since mercury mostly effects women and their unborn children, from your perspective, who the f cares? And yet I suppose you probably also oppose abortion, eh? Misogny rules the airwaves.

William Yeatman February 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

Tastefully put, A Woman.

Please go to the link embedded in “EPA’s Big Mercury Lie.” In it, I explain how mercury from U.S. power plants does not affect women and their unborn children.

bill allen February 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm

The problem is that Boehner is the Neville Chamberlain of the Republican party and will not do anything that his master Obama dislikes.

Kerner Smith February 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

I have been following this Rule development and the mascinations it has caused to the energy industry, utilities, and coal companies. What a disaster. And to boot, it is OK to charge double other renewable energy source costs for an offshore wind farm so that Deval can be appointed Secretary of Energy under Obama. What Energy Policy?

David McGuire February 17, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Your blog is unfactual and misleading. The EPA ruling says nothing about sushi. Instead it cites innumerable, credible studies linking coal fired plants to high mercury emissions and directly associating mercury exposures, primarily from eating fish, to adverse health effects in Americans.
It is estimated that 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children annually by 2016 will be prevented, as well as other health benefits. Women, children and the developing fetus are most at risk for serious health problems resulting from mercury exposure.
Between 300,000 and 600,000 of the 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year are exposed to significant amounts of the neurotoxin while in the womb putting them at risk to neurological and developmental diseases.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. The Got Mercury calculator at http://www.gotmercury.org estimates the consumption of fish and the associated mercury load based on consumption. Eating just a few meals of mercury laden fish can put one at risk to a number of symptoms ranging from fatigue to dementia.
A study published just last week reports one in 10 babies along Minnesota’s North Shore are born with unhealthy levels of mercury in their bodies, according to a new report on contamination around Lake Superior, the first to look for the pollutant in the blood of U.S. infants.
50 Tons of annual emissions is significant and will have a measurable reduction in mercury toxicity among Americans.
Yet, the benefits of this rule demonstrably outweigh the costs by a huge factor. The EPA’s analysis estimates that the newly finalized rules will save $9 dollars in health care costs for every dollar the industry will pays for the modifications.

William Yeatman February 23, 2012 at 8:34 am

Greetings David,

I disagree.
“It is estimated that 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children annually by 2016 will be prevented, as well as other health benefits.”
–refers to co-benefits engendered by pm 2.5 and so2 reductions incidental to the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule. These are not “hazardous air pollutants,” and they are not subject to the regulation. Instead, they are criteria air pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, at levels that protect public safety and then some. These co-benefits have nothing to do with mercury nor with the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule.
“50 Tons of annual emissions is significant and will have a measurable reduction in mercury toxicity among Americans.”
–the rule would reduce utility power plant mercury from 29 to 5 tons, if I remember correctly. In any case, the reduction “[won’t] have a measurable reduction in mercury toxicity among Americans.” Again, that’s according to EPA, not me.

Dennis Odle February 20, 2012 at 9:02 am

The basic problem is that regulatory agencies pass hugely expensive regulations with no real cost/benefit analysis. The mercury affected by this rule is something like 3% of the U.S. total. I am looking for the comparison of the mercury from power plants to the mercury in our new politically correct light bulbs.

nowsane February 25, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I recall reading somewhere that the regulation failed to take into account the intake of selenium, which has the effect of countering methylmercury. so, if that were included, I wonder whether this rule would have been necessary at all, even in EPA’s distorted viewpoint?

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