Last week, the White House and EPA launched a dangerous proposal that would ease restrictions on mercury pollution.
This was the first official move in a play to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: a lifesaving, fully implemented, effective pollution prevention rule – one that specifically protects pregnant women and babies from harm. This rule has helped to dramatically lower mercury emissions from coal plants. And it has other, major, health benefits as well. According to EPA, it’s responsible for preventing, each year, up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, and more.
Moms are not alone in opposing a rollback to the mercury rule. Electricity companies are also opposed – the very industry that is regulated by the rule. The very industry, indeed, that waged a legal battle against the rule. But in July, a coalition of industry groups sent a letter to EPA asking it to leave the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in place.
I spoke with Emily Fisher, VP of law for Edison Electric Institute, to learn more about why power companies oppose rolling back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).
Edison Electric Institute is the trade association representing all investor-owned (for-profit) electricity companies in the US. Its members provide electricity for 220 million Americans, and operate in every state.
This is an edited version of my interview with Emily Fisher:
What’s the status of the power companies you represent in meeting MATS?
We’re close to 100% compliance. We achieved that through a variety of means. We closed about a third of the coal fleet in 2015 and 2016. And then we retrofitted about 87.4 gigawatts, which is about another 29% of the fleet, with control technologies.
What are those control technologies?
There’s a range of control technologies you can use to reduce mercury. The ones you use depend on a bunch of factors like what type of coal you have and what other controls you have installed for other air pollution issues. Some plants were able just to switch to lower sulfur coal depending on where they were. A lot of plants installed something called ACI, or activated carbon injection. In some cases, plants installed scrubbers, which address other pollution issues in addition to mercury.
Can technologies be turned on and off at will?
Sometimes, yes. ACI, or activated carbon injection, is just for mercury. But scrubbers control for other pollutants, they’re not just for mercury, so you wouldn’t necessarily shut off your scrubbers, because you would run the risk of violating other standards. We don’t look at it in terms of, well, we’ll just shut the controls off. There are a lot of other reasons why the controls would continue to operate even if the mercury rules went away.
We’ve reduced our mercury emissions as a sector over 90% in the last 10 years. That’s important to communities, so people would think long and hard before they shut the controls off or stop complying with the standards. Those communities would not be super happy about that. The industry as a whole has spent about $18 billion to comply with the rule. Once you’ve made those investments you don’t want to not run the controls. Then it’s a stranded investment; why did you do it?
The investments we make are multi-million, multibillion-dollar, investments. You don’t recover that in one year from customers. It would make electricity unaffordable. We recover those costs over really long periods of time. Like 30, 40, and even 50 years. So we are still recovering the costs and will continue to still recover the costs of MATS compliance in electricity rates for years to come. If we stop using the controls, we will very likely be challenged on whether it’s appropriate to continue recovering the costs.
A lot of my members are concerned. They’ve complied with the rule. They’re proud of the fact that they’ve reduced their mercury emissions, and other toxic emissions, significantly. But that $18 billion needs to be recovered over a really long period of time through retail electricity rates. It’s likely that [if MATS were changed] we would have to go back to all of the state utility commissions and talk to them about whether or not we could recover the costs.
What about the plants that have been decommissioned?
They’re not coming back to life. When we decommission plants, a lot of times they get taken down to the ground. It’s not like we just lock the door and walk away from it and it just sits there. There are many reasons why if you’re not going to use the plant anymore you take it apart. Also, when we chose to close units or decommission them, as opposed to installing control technologies, part of that was an assessment that these units were no longer economic to operate. Changing the rule and not requiring MATS compliance doesn’t change the economic viability of coal units in America.
We haven’t proposed a new coal plant since 2010. A lot of that has to do with the fact that natural gas is incredibly cheap. It’s really hard for coal plants to compete with natural gas. It’s also really hard for them to compete with renewables. Renewable energy has become dramatically cheaper over time, even over the past five years. There’s a lot of reasons that coal isn’t a technology that’s competitive in our current market. I don’t have any member who says, “You know what? As soon as MATS goes away I’m going to restart that coal plant or build a new one.”
What are some other consequences of a rollback for your members?
Industry always says that we want regulatory certainty, and sometimes that sounds like just a thing that we say. But this — This is strange for us. This is a rule that we have fully implemented. Whether or not we 100% agreed with every element of the rule when it was finalized in 2012, when rules are final, we comply with them. Having the rug pulled out from under us after we’ve made significant investments doesn’t feel like regulatory certainty.