According to sources briefed on the matter, the first in a series of federal restrictions aimed at improving the air Americans breathe, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will finalize rules today that will compel 28 states and the District to curb air pollution that travels across states.
The Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which replaces a Bush-era regulation thrown out by federal courts in 2008, targets coal-fired power plants mainly in the eastern United States. The measure, along with a proposal aimed at cutting summertime smog in the Midwest, will cost the utility industry roughly $2.4 billion in pollution control upgrades over several years.
The EPA estimates the two proposals will yield $120 to $280 billion in annual benefits, including preventing 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths of Americans who otherwise would have succumbed to heart and lung disease.
A federal judge vacated the Bush administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) for several reasons, questioning in part whether the emissions trading system it established would do enough to bring all states into compliance with federal air quality standards.
Frank O’Donnell, who directs the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the measures are “a good first step in cleaning up the air” but are less significant than upcoming guidelines for acceptable smog and soot levels across the country.
S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the new regulations impose tighter restrictions than did the Bush rules on sulfur dioxide emissions that create fine particles known as soot. But they resemble the former rules, he said, in that they are using an outdated smog standard that the EPA is expected to tighten as soon as this month.
EPA officials declined to comment in advance of a noon announcement on the regulations.
Utilities in several states, including Virginia and Maryland, have already begun to cut the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions linked to both soot and smog-forming ozone. The EPA estimates that the power sector has spent $1.6 billion so far to install pollution controls that helped bring emissions in line with the Bush measure.
“The utilities are basically already meeting this,” said Michael Dowd, who directs the air quality division at Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. He added that while the Cross State measure was helpful because it “locks into place” slightly stricter standards than the CAIR rule, “it’s probably not going to bring any substantial real reductions from what we’re seeing now.”
James L. Connaughton, who chaired the Council on Environmental Quality under George W. Bush and now serves as executive vice president for public policy at Constellation Energy, said Constellation has spent $1 billion on pollution upgrades at facilities such as Maryland’s Brandon Shores power plant.
“We just went ahead and did it,” Connaughton said, adding it was unfortunate the court ruled that the Bush proposal could not go into effect. “We lost a couple of years in air quality improvement and investment, but we’re now back on track.”
Some utility officials said the new rules and others that the Obama administration plans to enact in the coming months could force the retirement of several coal plants. That, in turn, will raise electricity costs for consumers, said American Electric Power spokesman Pat Hemlepp .
“We need time to review the rule to see what, if any, changes were made to address comments and concerns submitted by industry and to determine how to comply,” Hemlepp said. “Our most significant concern remains the unrealistic compliance timetables of this and a series of other EPA rules that target coal-fueled generation.”
The rule will likely have its biggest impact on states such as Texas, which has challenged the idea of stricter controls on coal-fired power plants.
Vicki Patton, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that Texas power plants collectively “are the nation’s largest emitter” of nitrogen oxide and “the second largest emitter” of sulfur dioxide.
Cleaning up the lethal air pollution from Texas’ coal plants will save over a thousand lives each year and help the children who suffer from this pollution breathe easier,” she said.