The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new (and long-overdue) regulations today to rein in mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants. The new mercury rules, designed to save lives and protect children from the potent neurotoxin, are likely to trigger the closure of many of America's oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants over the next decade.

As the NYTimes reports:

If and when the new rule takes effect, it will be the first time the federal government has enforced limits on mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.

Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, said that the regulations, which have taken more than 20 years to formulate, will save thousands of lives and return financial benefits many times their estimated $11 billion annual cost. ...

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, harming the nervous systems of fetuses and young children and causing lifelong developmental problems. Other pollutants covered by the new rule, including dioxin, can cause cancer, premature death, heart disease, and asthma.

Power plants generally will have up to four years to comply, although waivers can be granted in individual cases to ensure that the lights stay on. The EPA estimates that utilities will be forced to retire plants that currently provide less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation's total generating capacity.

 

In this sense, the EPA's new pollution rules appear to be another example of the ongoing success of "oblique" strategies to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. While the new rules may only force the closure of 0.5 percent of the nation's electricity generating fleet, those plants will be among the least efficient and most carbon-intensive power plants in the nation. The coal-fired power plants most likely to be retired in the face of new pollution regulations emit at least twice as much CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity as the national average.

This is a small step forward on climate, but a real one, strongly justified on public health grounds alone, even before any climate benefits are considered. The new rules will eliminate "up to 17,000 premature deaths" per year, along with thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks and emergency room visits, according to EPA estimates.

Given the stalled progress of direct strategies for climate policy, this kind of indirect effort to drive progress towards a cleaner, healthier, and lower-carbon energy system is well worth vigorous pursuit, as we argued, along with many of our Hartwell Group colleagues, in the 2010 paper, "Climate Pragmatism."

As we write in "Climate Pragmatism," climate policy today will achieve the greatest success "to the degree to which it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical, and environmental benefits to political economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resilience to climate impacts."

We identified a set of "no regrets" pollution reduction efforts with climate co-benefits as a chief example of this kind of pragmatic, pluralistic route to immediate climate progress, including reductions in mercury pollution.

"Continued incremental progress, wherever cost effective, could yield further reductions in toxic pollutants such as mercury," we wrote, "while contributing to the accelerated modernization of America's energy system, with both direct public health and indirect climate benefits."

The mercury rules are one of several new pollution regulations coming down the pipe for coal-fired power plants. As the Times reports:

"The impact [of the mercury rules] on the electric system is difficult to quantify, in part because the administration is moving forward on two other major rules affecting power plants, one for plants east of the Rockies that send pollution across state borders, and another governing discharges of warm water. Plant owners may calculate that it is cheaper to build a new plant burning natural gas than to upgrade an old coal-burner."

More opportunities for pragmatic climate progress?

See also:

"Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience, and No Regrets," The Hartwell Group, July 2011.

"The Hartwell Paper: A new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009," The Hartwell Group, May 2010.