The stated purpose of the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week, is of course to protect public health, above all the health of children whose brain development is especially sensitive to mercury poisoning. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the annual health benefits of the mercury and air toxins rule will far exceed estimated annual costs to industry of $9.6 billion. Together with the revised Cross State Clean Air Rule, issued by EPA in July, the tighter rules will encourage utilities and energy companies to shut down older and dirtier coal-fired generating plants, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions besides cleansing the air of noxious pollutants. The Cross-State Rule required reduction of SO2 and NOx in 23 eastern and midwestern states and seasonal ozone reductions in 28 states.
The fringe benefits for climate are surely not unconsidered and merely accidental: The White House has taken direct control of clean air policy, overruling EPA when it sees fit, and, by the same token, allowing EPA to proceed when proposed regulations are deemed politic. In September, President Obama ordered EPA to delay revision of ozone/smog standards until the required deadline for such revision in 2013, so as to take into account overall costs to industry of clean air compliance. At that time, environmentalists rallied to the defense of Jackson, who was seen as having suffered a rebuke from the president.
They are not the only ones rallying: This week Nature magazine profiled Jackson in a year-end issue, designating her one of ten individuals who made a positive difference in 2011. Jackson, a chemical engineer turned policy administrator, gets credit for issuing a finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants regulatable under U.S. clean air legislation. The CEO of the leading utility in New Jersey, where Jackson served as environmental custodian before being recruited to the Federal EPA, pointed out that the new national mercury rules are essentially identical to those already adopted in that state—rules that energy companies such as his own have been able to meet without going out of business.
Seen from the perspective of climate policy, Obama has charted a course that in effect strongly encourages utilities to switch from coal to cleaner fuels, without doing so in a way that is too obtrusive or abrupt. An EPA fact sheet issued in connection with MATS estimates that the new regulations will result in retirement of just 4.7 GW of the nation's roughly 1000 GW of generating capacity; industry claims the proportion could be as high as 50 GW--roughly 10 percent of the country's coal-fired capacity. According to EPA, about half the nation's generating plants already are in compliance with MATS, leaving 1,400 coal and oil units larger than 25 MW to be upgraded or replaced.
The EPA squeeze on coal is not limited to SO2, NOx, metallic air toxins, and--when it starts regulating greenhouse gases--CO2: The agency is also working on tighter regulations for disposal of coal waste and intake of power plant cooling water. But for all that, regulation is not the main force limiting coal and encouraging alternative energy. The main force is the revolution in unconventional gas. In the first nine months of this year, coal accounted for 43 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and natural gas 25 percent, as Rebecca Smith reported this week in The Wall Street Journa,; eight years ago, coal accounted for 51 percent. If this general trend continues for another eight years, as it surely will, coal an natural gas will account for roughly equal shared of electricity, with wind taking a big cut too.
In effect, Obama's clean air policies amount to a stealth climate policy. Those who still think global warming is a hoax will hold that against him. Those who believe it's a serious problem should give credit where credit is due.