EPA Releases Updated Rule on Coal Pollution Cap and Trade Program

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the details of its new rule which aims to stifle cross-state pollution from coal power plants this Thursday.  The rule, entitled the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, will effect 27 eastern states where coal power plants are prominent.  It calls for significant reductions in pollutants that lead to the formation of smog and soot, both of which negatively impact public health and the vitality of our natural ecosystems.

The rule, which is a cap and trade program, will come into effect on January 1, 2012.  It requires approximately 1,000 power plants in the east to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 73% and nitrogen oxide by 54% by the year 2014.  Both of these pollutants can be carried extremely far from their point of entry into the atmosphere by wind and weather.  Thus, they contribute to high levels of fine particulate matter not only in the vicinity of the coal power plants where they originate, but also in residential communities great distances away.  As EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson stated: “No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.  These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air that they breathe.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the economic and health benefits realized as a result of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will far outweigh any costs incurred.  Smog and soot claim thousands upon thousands of lives prematurely each year in the United States.  Both can lead to deadly lung conditions as well as to fatal heart attacks.  Smog and soot also represent a health threat to asthmatics as they can cause serious asthma attacks.  According to a press release on the EPA’s website, by 2014 the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will “prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 19,000 of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days.”  The EPA estimates that enforcement of the rule will require approximately $800 million in initial spending, but that the annual health benefits will add up to as much as $280 billion.  Despite the costs that power plants will have to take on in order to comply with the new rule is a source of discontent for some, Harvard economist Robert Stavins stated that overall the rule makes good economic sense.  Stavins reported “it doesn’t mean that there are no costs, but the benefits of the transport rule in terms of human health protection tremendously outweigh the costs of this.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has worked on this rule for nearly six years, and it is being issued under the “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act.  This rule will replace its predecessor, the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).  The Clean Air Interstate Program, which was also a cap and trade program was finalized in March of 2005 under the Bush administration.  CAIR called for less aggressive cuts in nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide than the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule does and also allowed for states to trade credits more freely.  The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule only allows states to trade credits within their designated region, so as to limit the geographical range of the targeted pollutants.  CAIR was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. in 2008 because it allegedly did not have enough positive impacts on human health to warrant the burden placed on power plants in order to comply.  However, the courts also ruled that CAIR would stand until the EPA was able to develop a new rule.

Ostensibly, there are people who are dissatisfied with this new rule.  While environmentalists are applauding the rule, those in the business of coal and politicians based where coal plants provide jobs are up in arms.  They do not believe the costs associated with the new rule are justified and that the EPA has no right to impose costs on businesses during such difficult economic times.  However, this time the EPA is certain that its new rule will stand up to any potential appeals in court.  

Photo credit: fnal.gov/pub/today/archive_2008/today08-05-23.html

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