New limits on power plant emissions of mercury and other air toxics and a three-year compliance timeline remain essentially as proposed in March in a long-expected U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule issued Dec. 21.
"With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance."
The MATS rule — also known as the Hazardous Air Pollutants rule for utilities and the Utility Maximum Available Control Technology rule — establishes the first national standards to limit toxic air emissions from power plants.
The rule is expected to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent and also to cut emissions of arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases including hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid. The technology that controls those emissions also will reduce fine particulate matter.
Mercury is a neurotoxin to which fetuses and children are particularly susceptible, while other targeted emissions cause cancer, chronic and acute respiratory disorders, and other illnesses.
The compliance deadline is Jan. 1, 2015.
Changes in the Final Rule
The rule was issued several days after it was expected on Friday, Dec. 16, leading to speculation that it was being weakened in the final hours.
Changes, however, were minor and kept the emissions limits and the three-year timeline essentially as proposed.
Most notably, estimated costs and benefits dropped — from costs of about $11 billion per year in the proposed rule and benefits of up to $140 billion, to $9.7 and up to $90 billion in the final rule — but that's not the result of weakening, according to Jackson.
Costs dropped due to efficiencies suggested by some of the 900,000 commenters on the proposal, she said. Benefits were reduced because analysis showed that some of the benefits will be realized through the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule issued earlier this year.
MATS benefits occur primarily through as many as 11,000 premature deaths avoided per year but also through the avoidance of 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks, 130,000 cases of respiratory illness including aggravated asthma and acute and chronic bronchitis, and 540,000 days of missed work, according to the EPA.
In addition, the EPA's jobs analysis finds a net gain of 46,000 short-term jobs as pollution control technologies are installed and 8,000 long-term jobs to operate and maintain those technologies.
Plant Closures Expected
Based on the draft rule and other environmental rules expected or already out, utilities have said they would close some plants that are too small and old to merit expensive retrofits. More than 30 plants in a dozen states likely will be retired and another 34 may retire, according to an Associated Press survey based on the draft rule and reported on Dec. 19.
In West Virginia, AEP has said it expects this rule, with other EPA regulations, to lead to the closure of its Philip Sporn plant in Mason County, Kanawha River plant in Kanawha County and Kammer plant in Marshall County. Those three plants amount to 2,200 megawatts of older coal-fired generating capacity — 12 percent of the state's generating capacity but only about one-tenth of 1 percent of generation in 2010.
FirstEnergy has not yet announced its plans.
"We would need some time to evaluate what the final rules are and how they might impact our operations," said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin. "At this time, no final decisions have been made on the future of our fossil generating plants."
A state regulator has suggested that FirstEnergy's small, old Albright, Rivesville and Willow Island plants may be retired. Those total about 600 megawatts of capacity and represented much less than one-tenth of one percent of generation in 2010.
Utilities, regulators and electric trade organizations raised concerns that the combined capacity of plant retirements expected from the proposed rule and the tight timeline could lead to reliability problems.
The AP concluded after its survey that the concern likely was overblown; however, the EPA provided in its final rule for a fourth compliance year for technology installations and further flexibility for localized reliability problems.
The National Mining Association belittled the flexibility as inadequate.
"The modest adjustment to the compliance timeline in the MACT standard merely papers over a deeply flawed rule," said NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn in a media release.
But PJM Interconnection, which manages the grid in a 13-state region that includes West Virginia, supported the flexibility measures.
"We at PJM are pleased that the EPA administrator has included the key elements of our proposed process to preserve reliability into documents accompanying the final rule," the organization wrote in a media release.
The Sierra Club applauded the rule as a "milestone."
And the sustainability advocacy group CERES said the rule would "unleash investment" in infrastructure and create jobs up and down the supply chain.
Soon after the EPA made its announcement, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., issued a statement in which he said he had "serious concerns" about the new rules.
"In fact, I have voted in Congress to prevent their implementation in the near term. The rules are likely to drive up energy prices for American consumers and result in the loss of jobs for coal miners while doing nothing to address the growth in global emissions," he said. "It certainly makes more sense to me to be investing in American-made technologies to help American utilities upgrade to more efficient, cleaner ways of using domestic coal, rather than putting the rulemaking hammer to American plants and forcing our coal to be shipped overseas where emissions will be even greater. From the standpoint sufficiency of our energy supply and protection of our global atmosphere, we ought to be looking creatively at coal power, rather than instituting policies that force coal out of our energy sector."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also was critical of the rules.
"Today's announcement of yet another onerous rule by the EPA completely ignores the devastating impact these regulations will have on jobs and our economy, not only in West Virginia but across this nation," he said. "The Utility MACT Rule, combined with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that was finalized earlier this year, are two of the most expensive regulations ever to be imposed, and every American should be concerned about their effect on energy prices, the reliability of our power supply, our coal mining industry and most importantly our families," Senator Manchin said. "I believe we can find a responsible and reasonable balance when it comes to the environment and our energy needs as a nation. My desire to achieve this balance is why my Republican colleague Dan Coats of Indiana and I introduced the Fair Compliance Act – a commonsense, bipartisan piece of legislation that would create a fair timeframe to comply with new rules. I hope that Congress will address these regulations, and take up the Fair Compliance Act as soon as possible, to prevent the potential loss of a million jobs, increased utility rates, and more damage to our economy."