December 21st, 2011
02:42 PM ET
(CNN) – The Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled new federal standards on toxic pollutants and mercury emissions from coal power plants – a move being praised by environmentalists but criticized by others, who predict lost jobs and a strain on the nation’s power grid.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, at an event at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, announced that for the first time U.S. coal and oil-fired power plant operators must limit their emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants.
“I am glad to be here to mark the finalization of a clean air rule that has been 20 years in the making, and is now ready to start improving our health, protecting our children, and cleaning up our air,” said Administrator Jackson. “Under the Clean Air Act these standards will require American power plants to put in place proven and widely available pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases. In and of itself, this is a great victory for public health, especially for the health of our children.”
Specifically, the EPA will impose numerical emission limits for all existing and future coal plants and propose a range of “widely available, technical and economically reasonable practices, technologies, and compliance strategies,” to meet the new demands.
According to an EPA analysis, the larger economic benefits of the reduced pollution will more than pay for the short-term clean up costs. The EPA also predicts more jobs will be created than lost as power plants invest million of dollars in upgrades.
It also estimates health costs – as a result of less exposure to these toxins – will be reduced to between $59 billion and $140 billion by 2016, and the new regulations will prevent 17,000 premature deaths each year.
But the EPA also acknowledges the regulations will result in increased power grid strain: by its estimate, 14.7 gigawatts of power supply will be eliminated from the U.S. power grid when the rules take effect by 2015. That figure – enough to power well over 10 million U.S. households – is overly optimistic, according to other industry analyses.
Several industry groups and some Republicans also disagree about the economic impact the new regulations will have.
Reps. Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan, chairmen of the House Oversight Committee and subcommittee on Regulatory affairs respectively, sent a letter to the White House earlier this week claiming the “EPA has failed to perform a proper analysis of the rule’s impact on job creation” and “consider the rule’s impact on grid reliability.”
The new rules have also made their way to the Republican presidential campaign trail, with Jon Huntsman recently predicting increased brownouts during the summer and Rick Perry declaring the EPA is a “job killing” agency.
And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group traditionally sympathetic to Republicans, has aired ads urging listeners not to “let the EPA turn out the lights on the American economy."
But the Obama administration has found an ally in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who argued in a recent op-ed for the Huffington Post that the new standards are gravely needed.
“We can stop this,” Bloomberg wrote of mercury poisoning. “We can spare children this tragic injustice and the pain it brings their families. We can spare adults from losing years off their lives. And we can spare taxpayers the enormous health care costs that come with mercury-related-illnesses."
Environmentalists, who earlier his fall were outraged with President Barack Obama over his refusal to push for ozone emission standards the EPA supported, are also strongly on board.
“This bold new announcement means less contaminated fish – and more protections for kids who are at risk of developing learning disabilities and other problems that have been linked to mercury poisoning,” the Sierra Club said in an e-mail to CNN. “This is a big public health victory, 20 years in the making. It's one of the most important anti-pollution measures in recent memory.”