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Health Rules Could Cut Greenhouse Emissions

By Timothy Gardner
New York Times
A proposed rule on mercury, a pollutant bad for fish and the people who eat too many of them, could help the administration of President Barack Obama get near its short-term climate goal, even if the U.S. Congress fails this year or next to pass a bill tackling greenhouse gases directly.

WASHINGTON — A proposed rule on mercury, a pollutant bad for fish and the people who eat too many of them, could help the administration of President Barack Obama get near its short-term climate goal, even if the U.S. Congress fails this year or next to pass a bill tackling greenhouse gases directly.

Senate Democrats crafting an energy bill have abandoned it until September, and for the rest of the year they probably will not debate climate measures like carbon caps on power plants and mandates for utilities to produce more power from renewable sources like wind and solar.

But while many people concerned about climate control have been focusing on the Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency, under its administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, has been quietly preparing to crack down on coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, as never before.

Under Ms. Jackson — who has said the idea that progress on the environment has to hurt the economy is a "false choice" — the agency declared late last year that greenhouse gases endangered human health and welfare.

The agency has begun to take steps to regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles, power plants and factories. But its proposed rules on mainstream pollutants, those that can cause diseases, may limit carbon dioxide emissions the most.

While the agency is considering new rules for coal, its proposal for emissions of mercury, which go up smokestacks at coal-fired power plants and enter the environment, could pack a bigger punch.

The rule, which the agency was required by U.S. courts to issue by November 2011, is likely to help push many of the oldest and dirtiest emitters of carbon into retirement.

Environmental groups and a nurses’ group sued to compel the agency to issue the rules, which it has to start enforcing three years after issuing them.

Scientists say mercury from coal accumulates in many fish. Children exposed to the metal, through mother’s milk or by eating contaminated fish, are at risk of learning and developmental problems. Adults who eat too many contaminated fish also face risks.

When combined with the agency’s other current and coming rules on “criteria” pollutants, like ones that cause acid rain and smog, the mercury measure would require utilities to invest tens of millions of dollars on technologies to remove the substances.

Many of those plants are about 50 years old and are already inefficient.

“Those investments are just not going to be justifiable,” said Dan Bakal, director of electric power programs at Ceres, a group of environmentalists and institutional investors.

François Broquin, who has written reports on coal for Bernstein Research, said the combined rules could push as much as 20 percent of U.S. coal-fired electric generation capacity into retirement by 2015. “Obviously that will have an impact,” he said.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group, said that retirement of a large number of coal-fired plants could help the country exceed Mr. Obama’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020, measuring from 2005 levels.

“We’ve thought for a long time that proper enforcement of the Clean Air Act, laws already on the books, can have the unintended benefit of really doing something on climate,” he said.

The World Resources Institute, an international environmental group, said Friday that aggressive action on existing U.S. national rules and state plans could reduce emissions almost as much as Mr. Obama wants by 2020. But it said implementation of the proposed rules on mercury and other issues could get even closer.

Utilities are likely to replace coal-powered plants with plants that burn natural gas, which emits half the carbon that coal does. Alternative energy sources like wind and solar power, which provided most of the U.S. electricity capacity added last year, could also become more attractive to utilities.

To be sure, the rate of retirements may also depend on the price of natural gas, which is relatively cheap now, as new drilling technologies have granted access to vast new supplies.

In addition, coal companies and utilities could sue to stop or delay implementation of the rules.

But several utilities have already announced plans to shut coal plants.

They know the agency is also considering rules like regulating coal ash waste since a dike ruptured in 2008 at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant, unleashing a gush of slurry that flattened houses. Cleaning up after the disaster could cost $900 million.

Additional rules on chemicals that cause smog would add new costs, either to comply with or fight in court.

The agency’s rules alone would not get to the huge reductions of 80 percent in greenhouse gases by 2050 that scientists say are required to stop the world from suffering the worst effects of climate change. Ultimately, Congress would have to create a law to achieve those cuts.

Until that happens, the agency’s rules could serve as a bridge.

The rules are also not going to achieve Mr. Obama’s 2020 reduction goals, Mr. Broquin of Bernstein Research said, “but they are a first and important step.”

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