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Clean Air Act
Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2011

Obama faces a battle on air rules
New EPA limits on mercury and other emissions are gambles in crucial coal states, which foes say will see energy-sector layoffs.

By Neela Banerjee

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has adopted tough new limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, winning praise from environmentalists and public health advocates but sparking warnings from industry groups that contend the new regulations are too expensive and will place dangerous pressure on the nation's electrical grid.

The update to the Clean Air Act comes after a relentless 20-year battle in Washington. It marks the first time the Environmental Protection Agency has curbed power plant emissions of mercury, a known neurotoxin that can be profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women. The administration said cutting mercury in the air could prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths a year.

The announcement marks a strategic shift for the Obama administration, which had labored to mute industry and Republican complaints that environmental rules kill jobs, culminating in a decision this summer to halt standards to cut smog. Since then, the administration has moved to reassure its voter base of its commitment to the environment, most notably by delaying a decision on a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

The Keystone XL pipeline decision and now the mercury rule are political gambles for President Obama, since Republican challengers could push the jobs argument in crucial coal-reliant states like Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Obama put himself squarely behind the mercury decision, releasing a short video in which he underscored the fact that President George H.W. Bush had signed the "bold and necessary" law authorizing the EPA to reduce toxic substances in the air in 1990.

"Over the years, the law was never fully implemented. Special-interest groups kept delaying the process," Obama said. "Today my administration is saying, 'Enough.' We are announcing new, common-sense, cost-effective standards to dramatically reduce harmful air pollution."

Industry lobbyists and congressional Republicans, who have fought vigorously to halt new clean-air rules, warned of rolling blackouts and massive layoffs in the energy sector if the regulations were implemented. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) vowed to introduce legislation to halt the mercury rule when Congress returns after the holiday break.

"This rule isn't about public health. It is a thinly veiled electricity tax that continues the Obama administration's war on affordable energy and is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA's job-killing regulatory agenda," Inhofe said in an emailed statement. "I am determined to apply the brakes to President Obama's runaway regulatory agenda before it wrecks our economy."

Inhofe's measure is not likely to progress through the Democratic-controlled Senate, and if it were to get through Congress, Obama almost certainly would veto it.

Many environmentalists praised the new standard as a historic leap in efforts to curtail air pollution.

"We can breathe easier today," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an emailed statement. "Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children."

Under the new rule, power plants can emit 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. The industry had sought a higher limit, 1.4 pounds. But the EPA arrived at its figure based on a formula set out under the Clean Air Act, and analysts said the agency could not deviate from it. The rule would remove 90% of the mercury spewing into the air, the EPA said.

Copyright 2011 Los Angeles Times

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton