Senate affirms EPA mercury rule - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Senate affirms EPA mercury rule

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The Senate voted 53 to 46 on June 20 to affirm air quality protections, pressing an upgrade of the nation's coal-fired power generation fleet.

Senate Joint Resolution 37, introduced in February by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., would have blocked implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics, or MATS rule — also sometimes referred to as the Utility MACT rule, for "maximum available control technology."

The Senate's vote denied the resolution and allows the EPA to proceed with implementation.

The MATS rule

The MATS rule, finalized in December, sets the first national standards to limit toxic air emissions from power plants as called for by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990

The rule is expected to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent and also to cut emissions of arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases including hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid. The technology that controls those emissions also will reduce fine particulate matter.

Mercury is a neurotoxin to which fetuses and children are particularly susceptible, while other targeted emissions cause cancer, chronic and acute respiratory disorders, and other illnesses.

The agency estimated when it released the rule that it would cost about $10 billion per year and would provide benefits of $37 billion or more. Benefits come through the prevention of 11,000 premature deaths per year and also through the avoidance of 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illness and days of missed work.

Debate

The MATS rule is one of a suite of rules the agency has proposed or is about to propose on the power generation industry.

In response to the rules and to competition from cheap natural gas, utilities have announced the retirements of tens of gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, possibly as much as 10 percent of the coal fleet. It's not clear how many of the retirements might be attributed specifically to the MATS rule.

Dialog in the weeks leading up to the Senate vote has been heated and full of rhetoric, and debate on the Senate floor in advance of the vote did little to clear up the confusion.

Much of the talk had to do with jobs. Supporters of the resolution to block the EPA, primarily Republican, made statements, sometimes citing analyses, that power plants will close and jobs will be lost. Opponents, primarily Democrats, cited analyses finding that the manufacture and installation of pollution controls will, on balance, create jobs.

Supporters said there is no technology that will allow power plants to meet the MATS standards; opponents said half of power plants already are operating with the needed controls.

Supporters said the rule would raise electricity rates, in some cases by many times; opponents said utilities that have installed the technology have said there is very little rate effect.

The West Virginia vote

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted in support of the resolution, as promised.

"From the day I arrived in the Senate, I determined to stop the EPA's job-killing agenda, and this resolution goes a long way," Manchin said. "In West Virginia … we don't give bureaucratic agencies the right to set policy. This agency is stepping way beyond its boundaries."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. opposed the resolution, supporting the EPA. While affirming his support for a forward-looking coal industry, he had harsh words for the industry's current mode of operation.

"The reality is that those who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than solve problems that would help them, the people they employ and the states they work in," Rockefeller said.

"It's a terrible disservice to coal miners and their families to tell them that everything can be as it was," he said. "That can't be. It's over."

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule goes into effect in 2015, with a fourth compliance year for technology installations and further flexibility for local grid reliability problems.

 

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