For more than three years, the Trump administration has prided itself on working with industry to unshackle companies from burdensome environmental regulations. But as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to finalize the latest in a long line of rollbacks, the nation’s power sector has sent a different message:
Exelon, one of the nation’s largest utilities, told the EPA that its effort to change a rule that has cut emissions of mercury and other toxins is “an action that is entirely unnecessary, unreasonable, and universally opposed by the power generation sector.”
The rule in question, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), targets a powerful neurotoxin that can affect the IQ and motor skills of children, even in utero. Between 2006, when states began to curb mercury from coal plants, and 2016, when the Obama-era rule took full effect, emissions have declined 85 percent.
The Obama administration initially projected that the industry would spend between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion each year to comply with the regulation, while society as a whole would save between $37 billion to $90 billion from the prevention of thousands of premature deaths and lost work days. Those estimates included not just lower mercury emissions but collateral benefits from reductions in soot and other smog-forming pollutants that contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems.
The power industry ultimately paid far less to comply. It spent about $18 billion between 2012 and 2018, or $3 billion annually.
“EPA’s analysis suggests that the costs outweigh the benefits. That’s simply not true,” said Kathy Fallon Lambert, a senior adviser at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Lambert added that new research suggests that the neurological harm from mercury exposure amounted to $4.8 billion in 2017, more than the cost of compliance. “We know the benefits far exceed what they estimated, by several orders of magnitude.”