U.S. EPA finalized new rules today that will require another round of cuts in soot- and smog-forming smokestack emissions from power plants in 27 Eastern states.
The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which was known as the Clean Air Transport Rule when it was proposed a year and a day ago, is a "long overdue step" toward protecting public health, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters today.
By the time the new requirements take effect in 2014, power plants will need to have cut their sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent and their nitrogen oxides by 54 percent from 2005 levels.
Cutting down on pollution that leads to soot and smog -- as well as acid rain and hazy outdoor air -- is expected to prevent 13,000 to 34,000 people from dying prematurely each year. The benefits would be greatest in northeastern states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, which would see an estimated 3,100 and 2,900 early deaths avoided annually.
"We all know that pollution generated in one state or community does not stop at the state or the city lines," Jackson said today. When the pollution moves from one place to another, she added, it "puts a greater burden on states and makes them responsible for cleaning up someone else's mess."
Today's rule is the latest in a series of federal plans for dealing with lingering air pollution, especially east of the Mississippi. Written to comply with a section of the Clean Air Act that requires states to be "good neighbors" when it comes to deadly air pollution, the final rule sets state-by-state and plant-by-plant limits on emissions that can travel hundreds of miles on the wind and cause dangerously dirty air in other parts of the country, such as the I-95 corridor of the Northeast.
It is stricter than the George W. Bush-era Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which was struck down by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2008.
In that court decision, EPA was found to have broken the law by expanding the nationwide cap-and-trade market that Congress created in 1990 to deal with acid rain. Rather than allowing unlimited trading across state lines, as the last administration wanted, today's rule focuses on trading within states, but it allows interstate trading as long as the whole state ends up below its annual emissions limit.
But the Obama administration felt there was "more to do," as Jackson said today, and its rules will require some power plants to install more pollution controls than were needed for the Bush-era program, which was allowed to take effect in 2009 so as not to sacrifice the health benefits that the Bush administration and environmentalists agreed would come from cleaning up soot and smog.
Roughly in line with last summer's proposal, power plants would need to cut their sulfur dioxide emissions to 2.4 million tons per year and their nitrogen oxides emissions to 1.2 million tons per year by 2014, down from 8.8 million tons and 2.6 million tons in 2005. That will cost about $2.4 billion annually, including the $1.6 billion per year that is already being spent because of CAIR.
But by stopping early deaths, asthma flare-ups and heart attacks, the pollution cuts from CAIR and its successor will provide total health benefits worth the equivalent of $120 billion to $280 billion per year, according to EPA estimates.
Public health groups such as the American Lung Association praised the Obama administration for moving forward briskly at a time when some EPA initiatives are being delayed or scaled back.
"For too long, soot and smog pollution have traveled far from their sources, impacting public health," said Albert Rizzo, a pulmonologist and the Lung Association's incoming chairman, in a statement. "States cannot protect their citizens from pollution that blows in from neighboring states without a strong Clean Air Act and vigorous enforcement of the law by EPA."
The agency is under intense pressure from some industry groups and congressional Republicans, who label the environmental regulations as job-killers.
Combined with other new rules for the power sector, such as toxic emissions standards that were proposed in March, the interstate pollution limits will slam coal-fired power plants and hurt consumers by hiking electricity prices, said Steve Miller, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
"America's coal-fueled electric industry has been doing its part for the environment and the economy, but our industry needs adequate time to install clean coal technologies to comply with new regulations," he said. "Unfortunately, EPA doesn't seem to care."
Critics hope to stop the rules by pressuring the administration, or by starving them of funding. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that writes EPA's budget, today called EPA the "scariest agency in the federal government."
Simpson's comments came as a House Appropriations subcommittee passed a bill this morning that would withhold funding for several rules EPA has suggested for power plants, including standards for cooling water and coal ash. The new air pollution rules weren't among them.
Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the overwhelming scale of the estimated benefits suggests there's more to be gained from cracking down on soot and smog.
Many parts of the country will still have a hard time meeting federal air pollution limits, and that's only going to get tougher if EPA tightens the standards as its scientific advisers are suggesting.
"As significant as today's action is, it represents only a step toward a greater goal with respect to transported air pollution," Becker said in an email.
Click here to read the final rule.