BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – A former Obama-era environmental official says a new proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could allow power plants in Indiana and across the country to emit more toxic pollutants into the air and make it easier to deem environmental protection policies too expensive to implement.
Janet McCabe, former acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, says a proposed revision of costs associated with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards takes a radically different approach to assessing the financial impact of environmental regulations on polluters and could neuter attempts to enforce any environmental rules.
The MATS rule was enacted in 2012 and was the first federal standard to require coal- and oil-powered power plants to limit emissions of toxic air pollutants like mercury, arsenic and acid gases.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is tasked with identifying hazardous air pollutants and ensuring that sources of that pollution “do not violate established health thresholds.” The law also provides for the EPA administrator to determine whether regulations towards that end are “appropriate and necessary.”
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler approved the proposed revision of the supplemental cost finding for the MATS rule on Dec. 27.
The EPA says it used the Obama administration’s initial estimated cost of regulating hazardous air pollutant emissions from power plants ($7.4 to $9.6 billion annually) to compare it to the estimated monetary benefits ($4 to $6 million annually). The EPA determined that the cost outweighed the benefit, allowing it to deem that regulating HAP emissions is not “appropriate and necessary,” a reversal of a prior finding that reinforced the need for HAP regulation.
McCabe, currently assistant director for policy and implementation at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, says the Trump administration is using outdated information that could be easily updated and are omitting key facts that could reflect the MATS rule’s true cost and benefits.
“They are not including the billions of dollars of benefits from the other pollution that’s reduced when the utilities put their emissions controls on for mercury,” McCabe said. “Because when you control for mercury it’s unavoidable to reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. And those are pollutants that create other air quality problems which have been very extensively studied.”
In 2016 the EPA estimated that the MATS rule would prevent 294 premature deaths per year and create $2.4 billion in health benefits. The EPA also estimated that the reduction in toxic emissions would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks across the U.S. each year.
Indiana utility companies like Indiana Power & Light and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company have already invested millions of dollars in MATS rule compliance. IPL installed environmental controls at its Petersburg Generating Station and converted some coal units at its Harding Street Nation to run on natural gas. NIPSCO decided to retire all coal-fired power plants by the year 2028.
“NIPSCO is fully compliant with all MATS requirements achieving 90+ percent reduction in emissions and we will remain fully compliant through the retirements of all our remaining coal-fired generating units. As such, the review does not affect our plans,” Nick Meyer, NIPSCO’s director of external communications told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
Coal groups like the National Mining Association and the Indiana Coal Council blamed the MATS rule for industry downturns and applaud the new proposal.
Indiana Coal Council president Bruce Stevens told the Indiana Environmental Reporter the utilities’ plant conversions were responsible for a 4-million-ton decrease in coal demand.
“We welcome the agency’s proposal to revisit what stands as perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers,” said Hal Quinn, President and CEO of the National Mining Association in a press release.
The NMA says the coal industry is directly responsible for 14,926 jobs and claims more than 24,000 other indirect jobs. The NMA also claims to directly contribute $2.4 billion to Indiana’s economy. McCabe says the proposal is another example of the influence the coal lobby has on the Trump administration.
“It’s not a secret that Andrew Wheeler was a lobbyist for the coal industry. It’s not a secret that this administration is working with the coal industry to implement these policies,” McCabe said. “This administration clearly has made commitments to the coal industry that they would work to reverse every rule that was perceived as making it more difficult for the coal industry to thrive.”
The proposal will be entered into the federal register once the federal government reopens. Members of the public will then have a 60-day public comment period to make their opinions on the proposal known.
Environmental and health groups say they are against the proposal and will fight the proposal in the courts.
“Wheeler knows he’s wrong, which is why he’s using a con man’s tricks to give a Christmas present to industry and a lump of coal to the rest of the country,” said Earthjustice staff attorney James Pew in a press release.
“The misguided proposed changes leave MATS legally vulnerable and foolishly make it harder to strengthen mercury pollution reduction standards in the future to better protect children’s and women’s health, and Great Lakes fisheries,” said Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
“These standards save lives – without strong protections in place, children will disproportionately bear the burden,” wrote Dr. Collen A. Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “As pediatricians, we urge the EPA to maintain these critical standards, and call on Congress to protect the MATS rule so that all children, regardless of their ZIP code, can breathe clean air.”