In the 1960s auto companies vigorously fought regulations to mandate safety belts. Two decades later, when it became clear that consumers highly valued safety measures, the industry began to tout the safety of their cars as a selling point. Will we see a similar trend in the coal industry?
A recent decision by a federal appeals court reinstated the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which will reduce some kinds of pollution from coal-fired power plants. The rule requires coal-fired plants in 28 states in the Midwest, the East and the District of Columbia to reduce millions of tons of smog and particulates. The second phase in 2010 calls for a reduction in sulfur dioxide, and the third phase in 2015 requires further reductions in multiple air pollutants.
Industry, as expected, has complained that this regulation will cost too much, that consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant utility rates, that the economy can't afford the luxury of emissions reductions. Baloney. These regulations will directly benefit the residents of these states, along with the insurance companies who will face fewer health claims caused by pollution-related illnesses and the employers who will benefit from lower absenteeism and heath care costs.
The regulations will also benefit the coal companies -- just like safety belts and later, air bags, helped the auto industry. It is clear that the residents and voters of America are concerned about their health and the health of the environment. If the utility industry does not adapt to this reality and establish a leadership position on environmental issues, it risks the imposition of policies that will permanently disadvantage coal versus other energy sources.
In fact, the CAIR regulation doesn't go far enough. It left a major issue unresolved. Mercury, a highly toxic substance, was not included on the CAIR list of pollutants because it was to be addressed through a separate rule -- CAMR (Clean Air Mercury Rule.)
CAMR was struck down recently by a federal court after a suit by some states and environmental groups, who felt the regulation allowed for continued mercury pollution for far too long and at levels far above what several individual states allow. The most important source of mercury emissions in the U.S. today is coal-fired power plants. Every day they pump almost 300 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere contaminating the air, and then the soil and our water supplies. As mercury builds up in the biosphere it contaminates our food chain. For example, the EPA estimates that one in six women in the U.S. of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that could be harmful to a fetus, including causing lower IQ and other neurological problems.
However, there is an economical, proven solution to cleaning up most mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, a technology called Activated Carbon Injection (ACI). This solution, already used in several states, is very cost effective, adding about $1 per month per residential customer.
The reason this technology hasn't been implemented nationwide is the same reason CAIR was held up since it was originally enacted in 2005 -- the industry position that any regulation, no matter how beneficial, is simply too costly to implement. That's the mindset that led us to our current state of pollution levels and the real risk that coal will be left behind by other energy sources. With a new President and a new Congress, the old strategy of "just say no" to regulation is not going to work. If industry considers the big picture and works constructively with other stakeholders to develop balanced regulations, it has the opportunity to make "clean coal" a reality and sustain a major domestic source of energy, jobs, and profits.
On the other hand, the EPA and environmental advocacy groups need to come to the table as well. Rather than requiring an initial reduction of 90% of mercury emissions as some advocate, they should meet the industry in the middle by agreeing to a control plan that is sensitive to industry's economic concerns. One option is an immediate reduction of 80%, increasing to 90% in a few years. Adding a cap-and-trade feature will accommodate the construction of new coal-fired power plants without an increase in overall emissions. By working together constructively and avoiding long court fights, the utilities, regulators and environmental groups will be able to achieve tremendous improvements in our health and the health of our planet, quickly, and at minimal cost.
Implementing new regulations to reduce mercury emissions is the right thing to do. For all of us.
David Clary is the Chief Sustainability Officer of Albemarle Corporation, headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The company is a producer of innovative and environmentally responsible specialty chemicals for consumer electronics, advanced biofuels, transportation and industrial products, pharmaceuticals, agricultural products, and pollution reduction. http://www.albemarle.com/