(Reuters) - The Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled the first-ever standards to slash mercury emissions from coal-fired plants, a move aimed at protecting public health that critics say will kill jobs as plants shut down.
Facing fierce opposition from industry groups and lawmakers from coal-intensive states, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, will greatly outweigh the costs.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson revealed the rules, which have been about 20 years in the making, at a Washington, D.C., children's hospital. Mercury can harm the nervous systems of developing fetuses and infants and can enter the food stream through contaminated fish.
"By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health," said Jackson, whose agency hopes to start enforcing the rules over the next several years.
While the rule mostly adhered to the tough proposal on mercury, arsenic, chromium and other pollutants made earlier in the year, there were some differences.
The rules will cost utilities about $9.6 billion annually, down more than $1 billion from the EPA's earlier estimate due to "flexibilities" that were added to the final regulation, the agency said.
The EPA also said it will push permitting authorities in the states and cities to make "broadly available" a fourth year for polluters to invest in technology needed to cut the emissions.
One of a raft of clean air standards the agency is launching, the mercury standards have divided the power industry.
Companies including Exelon and NextEra that generate most of their power with "clean" fuel sources such as nuclear, natural gas and renewables have supported the mercury standards, while those that get most of their power from coal, including American Electric Power and Southern have vigorously fought them.
The standards pleased environmentalists and public health advocates, an important part of President Barack Obama's voter base, who slammed his decision in September to delay a landmark rule on smog emissions.
Driving plant closings
While the EPA stressed the flexibility of the final rules, power industry lobbyists said the agency still did not allow enough time for compliance.
Scott Segal, a lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani, said the rules will result in the loss of more than 1.4 million jobs by 2020 as utilities are forced to shut old coal-fired power plants. He estimated that for every temporary job created in technologies to clean up power plants four higher paying jobs, often union ones, will be lost.
"The bottom line: this rule is the most expensive air rule that EPA has ever proposed in terms of direct costs," Segal said. "It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that EPA has ever attempted to implement."
Rob Patrylak, a managing director of Black & Veatch, a consulting, engineering and construction company, said of all the EPA clean air rules, the MATS rule will force the largest number of coal-plant retirements. Unlike other recent clean air standards, such the Cross State Air Pollution Rule that seeks to cut emissions that move downwind from power plants, the MATS rule does not allow utilities to trade pollution credits to comply.