A labor union that is usually a stalwart supporter of the Obama administration is asking Congress to delay U.S. EPA's new rules on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying jobs will be lost if utilities don't get more time.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said today that it is backing American Electric Power Co. Inc. (AEP) as it lobbies Congress to give utilities an extra five or six years to clean up or shut down their oldest coal plants.
Tens of thousands of union jobs are at stake, but EPA cannot do anything about it, IBEW President Edwin Hill said in a statement. Under the Clean Air Act, power plants can only get three years -- with a possible one-year extension after that -- to add equipment that would trap emissions of mercury, acid gases and heavy metals.
"Realistic and reasonable standards will only be achieved through legislation," Hill said.
If the new rules force older coal plants to be retired, about 50,000 workers in the utility, mining and railroad industries could lose their jobs, the union says. The 720,000-member union represents 220,000 employees of electric, natural gas and water utilities, including about 20,000 workers at coal-fired power plants and others at the railroads that deliver their coal.
Jim Hunter, director of IBEW's utility department, said the union worked closely with AEP on a draft bill that would delay the air toxics rules and several other looming regulations for the power sector. He said IBEW supports the final product of those talks: a 56-page bill that has drawn a fierce backlash from environmental and public health groups since it surfaced on Capitol Hill last month.
"We're OK with the rules," Hunter told Greenwire. "The idea of installing pollution equipment is a reasonable request, and shutting down 70-year-old plants is also understandable, but it has to be done in such a way that we don't devastate the workforce, we don't create instability in the system ... and at the same time we keep reasonable costs on our electricity."
Critics of the bill have pulled no punches, saying that it would allow tens of thousands of early deaths each year. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club have launched a campaign asking how many people should die to prevent the billions of dollars in costs that are associated with the new rules.
"Today we are asking AEP a simple question," said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp in a statement last week. "What's your number? What's the acceptable number of American lives to surrender?"
Yet the support of one of the nation's largest labor organizations -- and a steady Democratic donor -- could deal a political blow to the argument that the utility sector is well-equipped to handle the new rules. Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for AEP, confirmed today that the company had discussed its bill with the union.
The IBEW was the 17th biggest spender in the 2010 campaign cycle, giving out $3.46 million in political donations, according to the campaign finance database OpenSecrets.org. Ninety-eight percent of the union's money went to Democrats.
Click here to read AEP's draft bill.