EPA Proposes New Air Quality Rules

Electric Generating Units, particularly coal plants, are the leading source of SOx and NO2
Electric Generating Units, particularly coal plants, are the leading source of SO2 and NOx

Just as summer is hitting an epic peak of blistering hot temperatures and contributing to terrible air quality in much of our region, EPA announced a big step to help reduce the smog and particulate matter in the air we breathe by proposing a new Air Pollution Transport Rule.  According to EPA, this new rule will reduce SO2 by 71% (from 2005 levels) and reduce NOx 52% (from 2005 levels) by 2014.

The new rule — which will replace the legally invalidated Clean Air Interstate Rule (known as CAIR) — is specifically designed to address pollution that crosses state lines.  It is directed at 31 states, including all the southeastern states, and DC.  EPA expects to have this rule formally adopted by spring of 2011, and the new requirements of the rule will go into effect a year after that, in 2012.  Within two years of the effective date, EPA expects that the emissions from electric generating power plants will be reduced significantly.  SO2 will be reduced by 6.3 million tons per year and NOx will decrease by 1.4 million tons per year.  The rule will accomplish these reductions by setting state-specific caps on these pollutants and then allowing unlimited intrastate trading of pollution credits and limited interstate trading.

Atlanta blanketed by summer smog caused by NOx and SO2

Atlanta blanketed by summer smog caused by NOx and SO2

Concentrations of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) in our air are major contributors to severe human health problems such as aggravated asthma, heart attacks, acute bronchitis, and other upper and lower respiratory symptoms.  While the EPA has worked for some time to address these problems through National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), those standards alone haven’t done enough.

The problem is that EPA sets these NAAQS and tells states that they should not allow their air quality to exceed them.  Some states work hard to develop implementation plans that will reduce pollutants such as NOx and SO2, which are responsible for the formation of ground-level ozone and microscopically small particulates known as PM2.5.  And yet, despite many hardworking state efforts, air quality often remains in violation of the NAAQS.

The reason?  Air pollution doesn’t pay much attention to state boundaries.  Just think of the air like a watershed, or a “plume-shed” if you will.  Plumes of pollutants from coal plants in Tennessee, for instance, can float right over the state line into North Carolina and cause their air quality to deteriorate.  The so-called “downwind” state does have some legal options, such as private lawsuits against the “upwind” state or power plants, but this is a slow process that isn’t always effective and results aren’t consistent.  This is where the EPA’s new Transport Rule comes in.

The 31 States and DC covered by the proposed rule

The 31 States and DC covered by the proposed rule

EPA will make sure that this rule is effective by developing Federal Implementation Plans (FIPs) for each of the affected states.  Using FIPs means that EPA will no longer be waiting for each state to individually adopt its own plan.  Importantly, EPA will design the Federal Implementation Plans uniquely for each state.  They will consider each states’ contribution to downwind pollution, the cost of controlling that pollution and the air quality impacts of reductions.  Once the Federal Plan is in effect, a state has the option of developing its own plan, but we won’t need to wait for reluctant states to act in order to breathe cleaner air.

One of the reasons EPA proposed this strong new rule is because the benefits so clearly outweigh the costs.  In 2014, the monetary benefits of this rule could be nearly $300 billion while the costs are under $3 billion.  The benefits aggregate from public-health savings, visibility improvements in national parks and wilderness areas, and environmental benefits such as reductions in acidification, eutrophication and mercury contamination.

Specifically, EPA estimates that in 2014 this rule will avoid up to 36,000 premature deaths, 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 23,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 26,000 hospital and emergency room visits, 1,900,000 days of missed work and school, 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 440,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms.

And all of these gains will be achieved without significant increases in energy costs.  The costs that are associated with this proposal will arise from industry compliance.  Coal-fired plants, for instance, may choose to install new environmental technologies such as scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction equipment, or they may source low sulfur coal, or they may decided to shut down in favor of cleaner alternative sources of energy.

All things considered, this EPA proposal is good news.  It sets achievable targets and establishes a real and workable framework for reaching these targets and it does all of this while addressing the legal issues that undid its predecessor.  If you support this rule you will have an opportunity to let EPA know.  There will be a public comment period and public hearings, both of which will be formally announced in the coming weeks.

Follow this link to keep an eye on the progress and to have your voice heard once the comment period opens.

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