Despite bipartisan objection and industry pushback, the Trump administration is expected to soon weaken rules meant to limit mercury and other toxic emissions from oil and coal-fired power plants across the nation.
The EPA has already sent the Office of Management and Budget the final rule, which would repeal the Obama administration’s justification for the so-called Mercury and Air Toxics Standard or MATS, although it's not clear when it will be made public.
While the administration’s current efforts wouldn't withdraw the rule, it would change its legal basis with new calculations of costs and benefits, a move lawmakers, environmentalists, former EPA advisers and some in the energy industry warn would reverse the gains of the rule and damage public health.
“Ever since being elected to the Senate, I have worked to clean up our air. The Mercury Rule … has helped keep our air, waters and streams clean – and has been good for our state and its economy,” said Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The Obama administration estimated utilities would spend around $9.6 billion a year to comply with the rule, and that it would generate between $37 billion and $90 billion in public health benefits. According to the EPA’s analysis, the rule has helped cut mercury emissions by about 86 percent since 2010.
“Efforts to roll back a rule that has successfully cut mercury and other toxins (are) unnecessary and universally opposed by the power generation sector,” Exelon Corp., one of the largest energy companies in the U.S., said in an emailed statement. “This action could lead existing coal plants to turn off pollution controls to save money, resulting in dirtier air at a time when consumers clearly want increased action to reduce pollution.”
The administration’s proposal stipulates that it’s not “appropriate and necessary” for the agency to regulate hazardous air pollutants under a particular section of the Clean Air Act, a position Alexander and Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., warned last year could endanger public health.
“This move could lead to the undoing of the mercury rule, which is why we’re urging EPA not to go through with it,” Alexander and Carper wrote in a USA TODAY oped in November.
The EPA estimated the rule would prevent about 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, and up to 540,000 missed work or sick days each year.
“The gains we have made over the past decade to protect children and families from dangerous mercury pollution should not be lost,” the lawmakers wrote.
“Mercury is a deadly toxin that harms the development of fetuses and children,” the lawmakers wrote in March 2019. “It makes no sense to take any action that could lead to the weakening of mercury emission standards.”
Collins last year introduced a bill (S 181) that would direct the EPA to work with other agencies to create a national mercury monitoring program. The bill has not received a markup at the Environment and Public Works Committee led by Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the nation's largest coal producer.
In public comments, the Edison Electric Institute, which represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, also urged the EPA to let the rule stand, saying a rewrite would create uncertainty for the industry.
The group said companies already invested in the technology needed to implement the rule, and the costs have already been or are being recovered.
“[The] EPA accordingly should leave the underlying MATS rule in place and effective,” Edison Electric Institute said.
Exelon also filed public comments saying there is “no basis to repeal these important and long-overdue” protections.
“Exelon’s experience shows that deploying zero- and low-emissions electricity resources benefits consumers and their environment while protecting system reliability,” the company said.
The administration is moving to undo the rule at the behest of the coal industry, a troubled sector to which Trump pledged relief, but one expected to continue to decline as utilities prefer cleaner burning fuels such as natural gas, solar and wind.
Robert Murray, the CEO of bankrupt coal company Murray Energy Corp., who is also a large Trump donor, pushed for the changes to the rule early in the administration. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was a lobbyist for Murray Energy before joining the EPA in 2018.
If the revisions to the rule are finalized, it would consider the regulations more costly than beneficial to public health. That could pave the way for legal challenges by coal companies that have blamed the rule for their financial troubles. It would also provide the administration justification to write weaker rules.
“The proposed MATS revisions aim to fix a dishonest accounting mechanism the last administration used that had the effect of justifying any regulatory action regardless of costs,” Mandy Gunasekara, former principal deputy assistant administrator at the Trump EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told lawmakers at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing earlier this month. Gunasekara left the EPA to start an organization called Energy 45, which aims to tout the energy, environmental economic accomplishments of Trump Administration.
A number of former agency advisers have warned the administration’s effort to weaken the mercury regulations is based on faulty and outdated data.
The group of environmental economists called the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, said in December that the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis is “fatally flawed” partly because it underestimates public health benefits from controlling mercury pollution, while overestimating the role of coal by assuming about half of the country’s electricity is generated by coal.
"It has the potential to set a precedent that would undermine the basis for environmental regulations," Mary Evans, a professor of environmental economics at Claremont McKenna College, told CQ Roll Call.
The EPA was expected to finalize the rule by the end of last year, and it’s not clear why it hasn’t yet filed it with the Federal Register. An EPA spokeswoman referred CQ Roll Call to the Office of Management and Budget, which would not comment on an ongoing regulatory process.