The Trump administration has questioned the cost benefits of regulations that set limits on mercury emission from coal-fired power plants, saying the rules that were put in place by the Obama administration were unnecessary and too costly.
Under the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) coal-burning power plants were required to install expensive equipment to cut output of mercury, which can harm pregnant women and put infants and children at risk of developmental problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) left the 2011 emission standards in place for now but proposed using a different cost analysis to evaluate whether the regulation is needed, a move that paves the way for looser rules going forward, Reuters reported.
The EPA has been reconsidering the justification for the rule since August. A coalition of electric utilities had said the looser rules were not needed since they have already invested billions of dollars in technology to cut emissions of the pollutant and comply.
EPA said it was “proposing that it is not ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate HAP (Hazardous Air Pollution) emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants... because the costs of such regulation grossly outweigh the quantified HAP benefits.”
It said its reassessment showed the cost of compliance with MATS was between $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually, while the monetized benefits were between $4 million to $6 million.
It also said the identification of unquantified benefits was not enough to support the standards. Among such benefits, environmentalists say are reduced healthcare costs, breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water.
A study published this month by Harvard University’s School of Public Health said coal-fired power plants are the top source of mercury in the United States, accounting for nearly half of mercury emissions in 2015. It said the standards have markedly reduced mercury in the environment and improved public health.
Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has targeted rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of domestic fossil fuels, including crude oil. U.S. oil production is the highest in the world, above Saudi Arabia and Russia, after a boom that was triggered more than a decade ago by improved drilling technology.
The coal industry had challenged a 2016 conclusion by Obama’s EPA that the rule was justified because savings to U.S. consumers on healthcare costs would exceed compliance costs. The calculations accounted for how pollution-control equipment would reduce emissions of other harmful substances in addition to mercury.
Trump’s industry allies had complained that the MATS rule contributed to the demise of the coal business by triggering hundreds of coal-fired power plant shutdowns and driving coal demand to its lowest in decades.
U.S. coal-fired power generation has fallen more than 40percent since a peak in 2007, while natural gas-fired generation soared by about the same amount, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Utilities’ demand for U.S. coal is projected to fall further this year, by around 2.5 percent to 648.2 million short tons, the lowest in 35 years, according to the EIA.