EPA mercury rules hailed as environmental victory for Obama

Tough new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting mercury, lead and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants were met with widespread praise from previously demoralized environmental groups on Wednesday.

Smog over Denver (WildEarth Guardians photo).
“Congress ordered the EPA to regulate toxic air pollution more than 20 years ago when it passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990,” said Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The EPA has been regulating most industries, up until now, except for the biggest polluters — coal and oil-fired power plants.

“The public health benefits far outweigh the costs. And contrary to the doomsday predictions of industry and their allies in Congress, the lights will stay on.”

Backers of the new rules say mercury is a neurotoxin with serious health implications for children and pregnant women, and the EPA estimates the new rules – which require new scrubber technology within three years (with extension possible on a case-by-case basis) – will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths each year. Coal industry lobbyists argue the new rules are unnecessary and will increase energy costs in a fragile economy.

Climate change denier and leading oil, gas and coal advocate Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the Los Angeles Times he’ll introduce legislation to overturn the new EPA rules when Congress returns following the holiday break.

“This rule isn’t about public health,” Inhofe told the Times. “It is a thinly veiled electricity tax that continues the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy and is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA’s job-killing regulatory agenda.”

But Obama will likely veto any such legislative attempt to undercut the new rules even if the Democrat-controlled Senate passes Inhofe’s bill, which is highly unlikely.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy is out ahead of the new rules thanks to the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act in 2010 that compelled the state’s largest public utility to shut down several aging coal-fired power plants and convert others to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy.

“We are modernizing our system and significantly reducing emissions under the state’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act,” Xcel officials said in a statement Wednesday, according to the Denver Post. “We also currently use activated carbon injection to control mercury emissions at our Pawnee Generating Plant and at all three units of our Comanche Generating Plant.”

Clean Air, Clean Jobs – highly controversial at the time it was passed – is now being held up as a model for other states, including neighboring Wyoming.

Environmental groups were dispirited by the Obama administration decision last summer to hold off on implementing new EPA smog rules ahead of a scheduled review in 2013.

Conservationists also have been sharply critical of the State Department approval this fall of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, although Obama later scored points by delaying that decision until after the 2012 election. Now a provision to fast track his decision has been included in a payroll tax cut extension that’s stalled in the House.

Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette today said Keystone XL was a necessary compromise to provide payroll tax relief and extend unemployment benefits and reimbursement for Medicare

“Over in the House, the Democrats, we don’t love this compromise,” DeGette, a Denver Democrat, said on a call with reporters today. “We don’t think it should be for two months. We don’t like the extension of this pipeline that was in it. We don’t like some of the ways it was paid for. But the fact is it was a compromise.”

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