EPA’s Weaker Coal Rule Not Weak Enough for Coal Industry

In response to industry complaints, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed softening its rule to cut mercury and other pollution from new coal-fired power plants.

An industry trade group says the changes, which include a slightly higher level of allowable mercury emissions, don’t go far enough to ensure coal remains an alternative to natural gas. The EPA released its revised rule Nov. 16.

“I’m not sure it’s sufficient to fix the problem, even for new sources,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a utility group that includes Atlanta-based Southern Co.

While Segal said utilities were reviewing the proposal, he said the revisions would still constrain a utility’s ability to build a new coal plant.

EPA’s mercury rule is one of several environmental regulations Republicans in Congress and industry lobbyists have argued will raise electricity costs and hurt the economy. The administration of President Barack Obama has said the health benefits outweigh the costs.

The changes proposed by the EPA last week don’t affect requirements the agency issued in December for existing coal-fired plants. Both limits seek to cap pollution of mercury, air toxics and particulate matter from coal.

The EPA said it reconsidered the pollution limits after new information and analysis became available. The changes announced won’t go into effect until March, after a public comment period.

‘Modest Weakening’

John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the changes amounted to a “modest weakening” of the limits the agency had set.

Most of the associated health benefits of the pollution limits come from the requirements for existing coal-fired power plants, which weren’t affected by EPA’s announcement, Walke said.

“The updated standards would only apply to future power plants, would not change types of state-of-the-art pollution controls that they are expected to install, and would not significantly change costs or public health benefits of the rule,” the EPA said in a statement.

Both Segal and Walke predicted industry critics would continue to challenge the limits in court.

Southern, one of the biggest users of coal in the U.S., and other power producers had complained the requirements for new plants under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, or MATS, were unattainable.

The company is pleased that the EPA “acknowledged the flaws” in the rule, Tim Leljedal, a Southern spokesman, said in an interview. He said executives were still reviewing the changes.

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