Long-Delayed Rules for Cleaner Air
After 20 years of delays and interminable litigation, the Obama administration has proposed a new rule requiring power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other airborne toxics by 91 percent within the next five years. Some environmental groups saw the rule as the most important step forward for healthier air since the Clean Air Act was last updated in 1990. It is unquestionably a victory for the public: when fully effective, the rule could save as many as 17,000 lives a year.
Some — but by no means all — power companies complained that the rule would impose high costs yielding relatively little payoff. So, too, did Congressional Republicans who have been on a two-month crusade to undermine the E.P.A.’s authority to regulate a whole range of pollutants, including greenhouse gases.
The numbers do not support them: The E.P.A. estimates the annual cost of compliance at $10 billion a year, compared with health benefits from reduced hospital visits and lost time on the job at $100 billion a year. Mercury and other airborne toxics like lead, arsenic and chromium can adversely affect the nervous system in children and fetuses and worsen respiratory ailments.
Nor is there merit in the argument that the technology for controlling these pollutants is not available. About one-third of all states have imposed their own rules on air toxics. In response to these rules, as well as earlier federal regulations governing other pollutants, plants with 60 percent of the country’s coal-fired capacity have already installed pollution controls that can be upgraded to meet the new standards.
The new rules bring to a close a bitter regulatory battle in which industry’s lobbying power has largely had the upper hand. President Bill Clinton waited until the end of his tenure to issue rules. They were promptly rescinded by President George Bush, whose own rules — ghost-written, in part, by industry — were thrown out of court as inadequate and inconsistent with the law.
More broadly, the new rules will help drive the power sector toward greater investments in more efficient plants and cleaner fuel sources. While many older coal-fired units can be retrofitted without great cost, some will be retired and others switched to cleaner-burning natural gas. This is something industry can afford and the nation needs.