Air Pollution

State air official John Paul pitches 'plan B' on mercury emission regulations

New rules from the U.S. EPA require power plant operators to reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018, but some state regulators want to take those mercury regulations a step further. John Paul, head of the Dayton, Ohio, regional air pollution office, explains a new plan from state officials to make even larger reductions in mercury emissions. But can existing technology help meet these tougher standards? Will these state rules drive up energy costs for consumers? Paul, president of the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, tackles these questions and more.


Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington to talk air quality issues is Mr. John Paul, the head of the Dayton Ohio local air pollution office. Mr. Paul thanks so much for coming on the show.

John Paul: Thank you for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: As the head of the National Association of Air Pollution Officials you and another group, the State Air Pollution Officials put out a report very recently, a model proposal, on how to go stronger than the Bush administration in terms of mercury controls for power plants. First of all, can you just explain for us what is this rule and how would it work?

John Paul: Sure. State and local agencies have followed the mercury issue for a number of years. We've worked with EPA. We've worked with Congress, virtually any anybody that will work with us to try to assure that we get good controls on mercury. When the U.S. EPA's rule came out earlier there were a number of states and local agencies that said, gee, we really need to go beyond this rule. And there are a number of states that have already gone out and adopted their own rules. But for those states and local agencies that are still looking at more rules they asked us, well, rather than us reinventing the wheel what of the associations would develop a model rule? So that's what we did. It's a model rule. It's flexible, but it has good controls. And it has different options that a state or local agency could pursue to adopt.

Darren Samuelsohn: The Bush administration sets up a cap-and-trade program across the country to trade credits amongst the utilities. It's a federal program, but the states have to set it up. What's different in terms of what your plan would do?

John Paul: Well, there are minimums with the federal rule. And basically we feel that that rule provides too little and too late. I mean mercury is a neurotoxin, 7 percent of the women of childbearing age across the United States are at risk. You know the most at risk population are unborn. So we think this is an extremely important rule. There's like 46 states that have fish advisories right now on the consumption of fish. So what's different is their rule is, as you said, cap-and-trade, a 15 ton cap, 2018. Because of trading and banking and everything else, you don't really get to the 15 tons until sometime in 2025 or beyond. What our rule would do would provide the mechanism for a state to get a 90 percent control, to 95 percent, by 2012.

Darren Samuelsohn: Wow, that's a lot faster.

John Paul: Oh much faster, yes.

Darren Samuelsohn: If EPA is saying that the technologies don't exist today to get us down to a level like that, that's why they had to take the cap-and-trade approach, how could your rule, how could this even happen?

John Paul: Well, the technologies have really developed just in the last several months and costs have been coming down. It's a little bit unfair to say the technologies don't exist. They do exist. They're on municipal waste combustors right now and technology does not care whether the emission stream is coming from a waste combustor or from a coal-fired boiler. So we don't think it's a matter of technology. We think the technology is there.

Darren Samuelsohn: Engineering wise, isn't it a difficult feat though to go from a waste combustor to actually putting it on a huge 500 or 750 megawatt power plant?

John Paul: Not really. I mean we've tackled greater problems in the United States. Now there's 1,176 coal-fired boilers. So maybe you could make an argument that it's going to take some time. Well, our rule provides until 2012 and 2012 is seven years from now. So that's a lot of time. And quite frankly we're confident. And remember, this is a model rule for a state to adopt. So let's say that Iowa wanted to look at this rule. They would look at their utilities. They would look at what's best, what kind of timeframe, and they would work that out within their state. But the bottom line, and the big difference between our rule and the federal rule, is that you end up with 90 to 95 percent control. You don't end up with 50 percent control 20 years from now.

Darren Samuelsohn: Tell me, what states have shown an interest so far in this plan? I know I saw it in The New York Times earlier this week. We're talking about a dozen states, maybe more?

John Paul: Oh there are a number of states that have already adopted their rules. There are a number of other states that are looking at the possibility. We recently met, our national association and all the states and locals were in Washington a couple of weeks ago. We asked for a show of hands at that time as to who is interested. Who thought they would use this rule? Not necessarily adopt, but would definitely use it. And we had 20 states that indicated an interest. My personal opinion is that you'll see 15 to 20 states actually adopt their own rules.

Darren Samuelsohn: Geographically? Is it across the country do you think? Or do you think it's mostly Midwestern states with their power plants? Or is it Southwest?

John Paul: No, it's across the country. Montana's looking real closely right now. And I think they have to report back to their board in February. New Mexico has indicated a strong interest. And then a lot of these northern tier states, fishing is important. Where people catch fish and they want to eat the fish that they catch this is going to be an important issue. And you can look for those states to look to adopt rules. South also, Georgia is looking at it, North Carolina. So it's across the country.

Darren Samuelsohn: We're talking about two very fundamentally different philosophies on how to control mercury. Do you actually force every single power plant in a state, in this case, to install pollution controls? Or as the EPA would have it as a trading program? I mean if these states were to go ahead and do this wouldn't it, to boil it down, wouldn't it mess up the EPA program?

John Paul: I don't think so. The EPA program depends upon benefits that you get from co-control for other pollutants. And it's really pretty lenient in those early years. That's actually what is forcing these states to go beyond it. If you look at a state, like Wisconsin or Michigan, and if you look at the federal rule and you see the time period between 2010 and 2018 and it's only 20 percent controlled, that's going to force their legislature to take action. And obviously they want 85 to 95 percent control and they want it lot sooner. So it's certainly not going to conflict with the federal rule. We met with EPA this morning. We reiterated to them and it was confirmed by them that we have the right to go more stringent. And that's what states will do.

Darren Samuelsohn: What was EPA's reaction to what you put forward?

John Paul: They agreed that we have the right to be more stringent. We didn't hear anything from them which indicated that this would cause any kind of complications. They have their analysis which lead them to believe that it was going to take longer. We just simply feel that it's not going to take that long.

Darren Samuelsohn: You mentioned that the neurological effects that mercury has. Now EPA's plan I think ultimately their goal is to get it down to about 15 tons in 2025. Your plan is a decade sooner, but we're talking I guess 15 or 20 tons of mercury out of the environment in the United States from power plant pollution. What kind of a health effect is 20 tons of mercury just in the United States? I mean are we going to see probably major differences if your plan were to be the one that would be implemented across the country?

John Paul: How much of a neurotoxin is good for you? You know, none.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

John Paul: So certainly 20 tons is worse for you than 5 tons. And you have to start somewhere. And we think absolutely that we owe it to the health of the people that live right now and future generations that we control mercury as much as possible. Plus if you develop the control technology here and prove it, then we think it can be exported worldwide. And you can really start to make a dent on worldwide mercury emissions.

Darren Samuelsohn: And that's where I was going next. Step back a second and U.S. coal-fired power plants, according to the utility industry and according to EPA modeling, are a fraction of what we're seeing in mercury coming out of industrial sources around the world. So why do anything in the United States when it doesn't look like, according to the EPA maps and the models, it would have much of an effect on much of the United States?

John Paul: Well, it'll have an effect. Like I say if you reduce emissions by 45 tons of mercury then that's 45 tons of mercury that's not getting into the environment. Now does that pale compared to 1,000 tons from China? Well, yes, but how can you go to China and say you need to control your mercury emissions, if you're not doing the best year? So we think that you need to think globally. You need to act locally. And we think that once we've done our share then we can expect the rest of the world to do their share.

Darren Samuelsohn: One of the main arguments EPA made when they put their rule out was Americans eat fish, but that fish is coming from over in Asia. What do you say to that?

John Paul: I can say they didn't grow up in Wisconsin like I did. When I lived in Wisconsin, so this is the thinking of people that live in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota. We ate fish two and three times a week. We ate the fish that we caught from the lake that was right across the street. Canned tuna is not even considered to be fish in Wisconsin.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

John Paul: So it's a big deal. There's no way to say otherwise. It's a real big deal in these states where people catch fish and eat fish.

Darren Samuelsohn: Your plan is one way to change what EPA has done. But there are other ways out there. I guess the Senate tried to vote and change the EPA rules and force these people to go back to the drawing board. That didn't work. It was rejected in the Senate. There are lawsuits out there and those will be moving their way through. What are your thoughts on the legality of what EPA has done in terms of going with a trading program? Because I know you were actively involved early on in this process and you think EPA legally was obligated to do something quite different.

John Paul: Absolutely. And I'm not a lawyer, but I do believe that they were obligated to have a more stringent rule. They had the perfect process. I mean they had all the stakeholders involved in the working group. And the working group met for 18 months. They had everyone there. I mean we identified the issues. We discussed the issues. And even industry was saying that they could get down to 26 tons under a MACT rule.

Darren Samuelsohn: MACT being?

John Paul: MACT being under the section of the Clean Air Act which requires the maximum available control technology on all plants. So even industry in that process was saying that they could do it. We've never had a full explanation from EPA as to why they walked away from that process and came up with the cap-and-trade process that they have.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that those issues will be factored into litigation as the Court of Appeals here in Washington hears about this? The EPA walking away from the process that they had set out. Is that going to come back and bite them do you think?

John Paul: I would hope so. It should. A good government regulation has all of the stakeholders. It's an open and transparent process. And it's not something that people are left scratching their heads after they've worked on it for 18 months saying where did this come from?

Darren Samuelsohn: And legislatively, I mean that's another way that this could all change. Where do you think that's going? Is there any chance that we're going to see, from the Democrats or from the Republicans, movement on a Clean Air Act amendments. Obviously we just celebrated the 15th anniversary of the 1990 amendments, just the other day. So I mean we're at that point where maybe it's time. But do you think it's time?

John Paul: You know it brings up the interesting phrase 'the intent of Congress' and what's the intent of Congress? Was it when they wrote the act in '70, amended it in '77 and 1990? Or is it the intent today? And you've seen, especially on Clear Skies, that it doesn't appear to be the intent of Congress today that these less stringent rules should be in place. And we don't think it was the intent of Congress in the previous versions of the Clean Air Act. So it would be interesting. If I had to write something it would be much more stringent limits on utilities, for mercury, for SOX, for NOX. And it would be something that was a lot more timely and maybe that's something that could find its way through Congress.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do think it's for the next administration or the next Congress as opposed to this Congress and this administration?

John Paul: It's certainly ripe for that. It appears that as long as this administration keeps insisting on all the relaxations that they have in each one of these bills that come up, especially with New Source Review, that they're not going to get legislation through. So if they're not willing to compromise, if they're not willing to have more stringent rules then apparently will be left to the next administration.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK Mr. Paul, we're going to have to leave it at that. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

John Paul: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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