EPA Releases New Rules Limiting Power Plant Emissions

New rules are forcing power plants to clean up their acts.

Breaking news: EPA also sets first limits on carbon emissions from power plants. Read more here

This past December, speaking at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., Lisa Jackson unveiled the EPA’s first-ever rules to limit mercury pollution and other toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants. This being a hospital, Jackson naturally focused on the health benefits. Power plants, after all, are responsible for about half of the mercury that makes its way into our seafood and causes cognitive problems in young children; research shows it causes neurological disorders and reproductive harm in songbirds and bats, too. But the rules also heralded something even bigger: a notable shift in America’s decades-long love affair with coal.

The mercury rule has been in the works since 1990, and reining in the neurotoxin is a big deal. One 2005 study, for instance, found that up to 637,000 babies were born in the United States each year with significant amounts of mercury in their bloodstream, with about two-thirds of them suffering IQ loss. What’s more, as utilities install scrubbers to sop up the mercury, they’ll also reduce lung-damaging particulate pollution that sends thousands of Americans to the emergency room each year. The EPA estimates the rules will prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year and save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs once they’re fully implemented by 2016, dwarfing their expected $9.6 billion cleanup price tag.

But more than that, the rules also signaled a fresh approach to the way the government deals with coal. For decades dozens of ancient, dirty coal-fired plants across the United States have largely evaded pollution controls because they were grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act. That period is now over, as the EPA is steadily putting out a flurry of new rules—tackling everything from mercury and arsenic to fish-killing cooling-water processes—that will force those power plants to clean up their acts.

That, in turn, means that many utilities will end up retiring their creakiest plants. According to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, 14 percent of U.S. coal capacity will be retired by 2022, as utilities decide it’s not worth it to install modern pollution controls on some of their outdated plants. (An influx of cheaper natural gas from newly discovered shale deposits is also putting coal on the defensive.)

At the same time the EPA is slowly moving to curb heat-trapping greenhouse gases from power plants and refineries. In January the agency unveiled a new searchable online map and database that allows people to find the biggest carbon polluters in their area—a move that could prod many large power plants to voluntarily tone down their emissions, the way the Toxics Release Inventory did when it was unveiled in 1986. “The biggest polluters will start feeling pressure from the public,” says Mark Stephan, a political scientist who has studied the toxics inventory.

Add it all up, and that’s a lot of pressure on coal, one of the prime contributors to air pollution and global warming. In recent memory, many environmentalists have focused on stopping new coal plants through the courts. This strategy has often proven surprisingly successful: In December 2011, for instance, Audubon and the Sierra Club managed to persuade Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) to mothball an aging coal plant in Texas before building a brand-new one. But this sort of grassroots action can only go so far without an assist from the government. And the recent EPA moves are, at the very least, a start.