Under pressure from industry, Congressional Republicans are urging the U.S. EPA to further delay long-overdue rules that would limit more than 80 air toxics emitted by coal-burning power plants, barely a month after the agency announced them.
At least one lawmaker, Rep. Edward Whitfield of Kentucky — a state which gets more than 90 percent of its power from coal — has said he will soon introduce legislation to postpone implementation of the regulations.
The rules in question are EPA's air toxics standards to control mercury and other poisonous substances from power plants, as well as the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards that govern hazardous emissions from boilers and cement plants.
EPA released the nation's first regulations for toxic power plant emissions on March 16. The boiler rules were announced in February 2011 and the cement standards in August 2010. All of the policies are mandated by the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act and originally set to be finalized in 2000.
According to EPA, the mercury and air toxics standards alone would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks each year.
Utilities and business groups say the anti-pollution rules would be too costly to implement and would force early shutdowns of power plants, threatening jobs and economic recovery.
During a hearing on the proposed EPA rulemakings last Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Power, Rep. Whitfield, the subcommittee chair, said Congress has the right to change the Clean Air Act amendment if necessary. Whitfield declared his intent last week to introduce legislation after the two-week recess ends on May 1 that would delay the regulations.
In an email to SolveClimate News, a spokesperson for Rep. Whitfield said the details of the draft bill are still being finalized and declined to comment on the length of the proposed delay.
"It's quite clear that EPA...is determined to pass regulations to increase the cost of coal and make other energy sources more competitive," Rep. Whitfield said at the hearing. "We need a national debate on the direction that the EPA is going and the method that they're using to get there."
Others on the subcommittee believe the country has waited long enough for the rules designed to protect public health.
"I'm not a math major," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), "but if these were supposed to be completed in 2000 and it's now 2011, then plant operators will have an almost 15-year delay in meeting these standards," given that utilities have up to four years to comply.
'Far Less Draconian' than Many Feared
The holdup was due to a series of lawsuits and court orders.
The air toxics standards were designed to control 84 different air pollutants, including mercury, benzene and acid gases. When the Bush administration's EPA first introduced an alternative mercury cap-and-trade system in 2004, which did not cover the other pollutants, environmentalists sued and won their case. EPA was under a court order to release the draft rule last month.
There was a lot of speculation over the years about how tough the standards would be, and whether utilities would have flexibility in complying with them.
They ended up being "far less draconian than many in the industry had feared," energy policy expert Susan Tierney told SolveClimate News. For instance, there were concerns that EPA would force all power plants to use the same kind of pollution-control technology. Instead, utilities can choose from a variety of measures.
Tierney is managing principal at Analysis Group, a Boston-based energy consulting firm, and former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Energy. She did not attend the hearing and is not directly involved with the EPA rules or related lawsuits.
GOP Says Not Trying to Repeal Rules
Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the goal should not be "to repeal these regulations [but to] advance them in a reasonable way" without raising electricity prices or reducing jobs.
Of the seven witnesses present at the hearing, five were utility and manufacturing representatives who expressed worry over the regulations. The remaining two — Michael Bradley, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy Group, and John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Clean Air Program — urged the subcommittee to refrain from delay tactics.
EPA representatives were invited as witnesses but did not show up, prompting subcommittee member Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) to relabel the agency as the "Evaporating Personnel Administration."