The largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic air pollution in the United States, the nation's coal- and oil-fired power plants, will be forced to reduce their emissions or shut down, under a federal regulation released Wednesday.
The long-overdue national standards for mercury and other toxic pollutants are the first to be applied to nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants.
About half of the 1,300 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990 getting the authority from Congress to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks. A decade later, in 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on the emissions to protect public health.
Decades of litigation and changing political winds have allowed power plants to keep running without addressing their full environmental and public health costs.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement that the 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." The rule ranks as one of the most expensive in the EPA's history, with an estimated $9.6 billion price tag.
Its release comes after intense lobbying from power producers and criticism from Republicans, who said the rule would threaten jobs and electric reliability and raise electricity prices.
To ease those concerns, the administration will encourage states to make "broadly available" an additional fourth year to comply with the rule, as allowed by the law. Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues, according to a presidential memorandum to Jackson.
In the memorandum, President Barack Obama said the new standards "will promote the transition to a cleaner and more efficient U.S. electric power system." He directed the EPA to ensure that implementation of the rule "proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability."
Some in the industry wanted an automatic and longer delay, to ensure that the combination of power plants retiring and those shutting down temporarily to install pollution control equipment would not affect reliability. But even the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the independent body that ensures electric reliability, did not see evidence for a blanket extension.
An AP survey of 55 power plants producers found that more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states would retire because of the regulation issued Wednesday, and another rule aimed at reducing pollution downwind from power plants. The survey found, however, that the power plant retirements alone would not cause homes to go dark. Another 36 power plants may have to shut down because it would be cheaper than complying with the rule. The estimated age of the units retiring or at risk was 51 years.
For coal, which was already struggling because of low natural gas prices and lackluster demand for electricity, the environmental regulations may well be the final blow.
Two other federal environmental regulations in the works to address cooling water intakes and coal ash disposal could lead to more power plant retirements, according to experts.