EPA May Rewrite Obama-Era Regulation That Shut Down Coal Plants

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Trump administration asked a federal court to delay oral arguments so it can review a costly Obama-era regulation limiting mercury and other pollutants from power plants.

The Department of Justice notified all parties involved in the lawsuit over the mercury, or MATS, rule Tuesday they would ask the court to delay oral arguments set for May 18 so the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could review the regulation.

“This continuance is appropriate because recently-appointed EPA officials in the new Administration will be closely scrutinizing the Supplemental Finding to determine whether it should be maintained, modified, or otherwise reconsidered,” reads the Trump administration’s legal filing.

The Supreme Court struck down the MATS regulation in 2015, ruling the EPA “acted” “unreasonably when it deemed cost irrelevant to the decision to regulate power plants,” but a lower court allowed EPA to keep MATS in place since the agency is close to issuing a similar rule.

EPA, however, still had to complete an updated cost-benefit study for MATS, which was challenged by 15 states and several energy companies. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt joined the lawsuit against EPA while attorney general of Oklahoma.

“As reflected in the parties’ briefs, the Supplemental Finding also implicates significant legal and policy issues about a CAA rule of national importance—issues that new EPA officials will need time to carefully review,” the administration argued.

States and energy companies will no doubt celebrate the EPA’s reviewing of MATS, seeing it as the next step in the Trump administration’s plan to cut most federal regulations imposed during the Obama administration.

Environmentalists were angry with the Trump administration, saying it was pointless to reconsider a rule U.S. coal-fired power plants have largely complied with or shut down.

When EPA issued MATS in 2012, the agency estimated the rule would cost $9.6 billion and generate between $37 billion and $90 billion in health benefits.

EPA also said MATS would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year, but critics have challenged these claims.

In fact, EPA only estimated about $6 million in benefits directly from reducing mercury emissions. Virtually all of the regulation’s benefits come from reducing other pollutants, called “co-benefits.” That means the costs of reducing mercury outweigh the benefits by a 1,600 to one ratio.

“According to the EPA, the MATS rule is necessary in order to protect a supposed population of pregnant subsistence fisherwomen, who during their pregnancies eat hundreds of pounds of self-caught fish from America’s most polluted bodies of fresh inland water,” William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said after the 2015 appeals court ruling.

“EPA’s has produced no evidence these voracious pregnant anglers actually exist; rather, they are modeled to exist,” Yeatman said. “I suggest these ‘victims’ don’t exist, and that the putative mercury benefits are much closer to zero.”

MATS has probably had the biggest impact on coal-fired power plants of any EPA regulation. A record nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power was shut down in 2015 — the first year MATS went into effect.

Some power plants were given extensions until 2016 and 2017. Another 12 gigawatts of coal-fired power is expected to shut down through 2020.

Coal has also come under pressure from natural gas, which has become price competitive in recent years due to hydraulic fracturing. Utilities are using more natural gas to avoid installing expensive emissions control technology and in anticipation of global warming regulations.

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