Business groups launch legal, Capitol Hill attacks on EPA mercury rule

Major industry groups have stepped up efforts to scuttle new Environmental Protection Agency rules that require curbs on emissions of mercury and other air toxics from coal-fired power plants.

The rule’s formal publication Thursday (EPA had already announced the regulation late last year) gave groups the green light to sue.

The National Mining Association said it has filed for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and other lawsuits are also rolling in against the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards.

“EPA has dangerously underestimated the impact of the Utility MACT and related rules on the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid,” said Hal Quinn, the mining group’s CEO, in a statement that noted some companies have already announced plans to retire coal plants. 

He said the rules will mean “less reliability, higher costs to consumers and businesses and lost employment.”

At the same time, the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw its weight behind Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) new push to overturn the regulation on Capitol Hill.

“We asked the administration not to upend the rule but to merely give utilities several additional years to comply. This request was denied,” said Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist for the chamber, in a statement.

“Utility MACT will require power plants to be shut down, significantly modified or replaced, and for gas pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure to be built,” he said, arguing more time is needed to make these “sweeping changes.”

The rules required under 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act have already been long delayed, and provide power companies with up to four years to comply (with the possibility of a fifth on a case-by-case basis if electric reliability is threatened locally).

EPA officials said the power plant rules have enough flexibility to address reliability concerns, and advocates of the emissions regulations point to reports from the Congressional Research Service and the Energy Department to back them up.

EPA said the rules will bring massive public health benefits and that the industry can meet the standards, arguing that plans to close plants are business decisions that can’t be blamed solely on pollution regulations.

EPA estimated that the air toxics standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma per year. The agency forecasted that changes to electricity costs from the rules will be slight, averaging roughly 3 percent on a national basis.

The Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement Thursday about the rule’s formal publication, called it a “historic win for public health, the environment, and the economy,” and slammed efforts to nix the new standards.

“There will be some in industry who choose to invest their money in dismantling the rule through the courts or through Congress — instead of investing in life-saving technologies to reduce toxic emissions,” the group said. “That would put all of us at risk.”