The EPA's Irrational, Anti-Coal Mercury Regulations

The Utility MACT rule could cost up to $6 million to solve a nonexistent problem.

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Daniel Simmons is the director of state affairs at the Institute for Energy Research.

The Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA, should go back to the drawing board on many of its rules, but the most egregious of all its pending proposals must be the Utility MACT rule. The rule will cost billions per year for health and environmental benefits that, upon closer examination, are wildly overestimated—but the EPA is intent on moving forward anyway. This is because Utility MACT isn't about protecting people or the environment; it's about getting rid of coal.

The most obvious reason that Utility MACT isn't about the environment or human health impacts is the incredibly small alleged benefits from achieving mercury reductions. According to the EPA, the rule would provide $500,000 to $6 million in annual health benefits from the reduction of mercury. (The EPA does not quantify the benefits of reducing other hazardous air pollutants targeted by Utility MACT, probably because the benefits are much lower.) But these mercury benefits are almost certainly an overstatement.

Consider the following: EPA's health impact estimates focus on the harm done to a theoretical child whose mother consumes 139 pounds of fish that was self-caught from water at the 95th percentile level of methyl mercury contamination. The EPA uses fish consumption for its risk assessment because, unlike most hazardous air pollutants, mercury does not pose a health risk via inhalation, but through being deposited in water.

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Under these assumptions, the EPA estimates that the level of harm that power plant mercury emissions pose to its theoretical child is a loss of 0.2 IQ points. But this is a highly improbable situation, especially in a developed, industrialized society like our own. As such, the agency has yet to identify a population of women who eat large amounts of very contaminated fish every year, and the EPA has been unable to find a single child that has lost IQ points because of in-utero exposure to contaminated fish. It is quite possible that the agency does not identify these individuals because they do not exist in the United States.

For achieving dubious benefits that are supported by a small amount of inapplicable data, the EPA's rule will be incredibly expensive to our economy. The agency itself says that its rule will cost $11 billion per year; this is a tremendous price tag particularly when contrasted to the $500,000 to $6 million per year that the EPA projects will be saved through mercury reductions. 

Because of this rule and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, coal plants are closing across the country. According to EPA modeling and actual announcements from electricity producers, nearly 35 gigawatts of electricity capacity will close because of these two rules.  

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These closures will make the electricity grid less reliable, and along with costly plant upgrades, they will lead to higher electricity prices in the future. Higher prices are especially hard to bear when the alleged benefits are so low. 

The looming threat of Utility MACT is real, and the above map shows only a portion of the damage that will be done. For this reason, the Senate recently debated legislation that would have allowed Congress to review the rule prior to implementation in 2015—but President Obama promised to veto the measure, and it ultimately failed to gain passage in the Senate on June 20.

The EPA's Utility MACT rule is not rational, unless the goal is to stop coal use in the United States. The United States has the world's largest supply of coal, and putting coal off limits will only hurt our economy, increase energy prices, and make it harder to do business in America. It's no wonder that the U.S. economy continues to sputter when we have an administration that is so antagonistic to domestic energy production.

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