House G.O.P. Continues Assault on Clean Air Safeguards With Parade of Horribles

Americans continue to support clean air safeguards in resounding numbers [pdf], yet Congressional Republicans persist in attacking standard after life-saving standard to reduce dangerous air pollution. This week is no exception to that deadly rule.

The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power is holding a hearing today to attack EPA’s recently-finalized Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants. The Republicans’ witness list indicates this hearing is shaping up to be yet another one-sided slam on clean air standards that will save tens of thousands of American lives. But the facts and overwhelming health benefits behind these standards outweigh the complaints of outliers and naysayers.

EPA’s historic Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for the first time set national limits on mercury, arsenic, lead, acid gases and other toxic air pollution from power plants that burn coal and oil. These standards are more than a decade overdue and will result in enormous health benefits to the American people. EPA estimates [pdf] that starting in 2016, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards every year will prevent: 

  • up to 11,000 premature deaths;
  • nearly 5,000 heart attacks;
  • 130,000 asthma attacks;
  • 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits; and
  • 540,000 days when people miss work and school.

An Energy and Power subcommittee Republican staff memo complains [pdf] about the costliness of the MATS standards, but then incredibly ignores the far greater benefits that outweigh costs by up to 9 to 1. The standards have annual estimated benefits of $37 to $90 billion, compared to only $9.6 billion in compliance costs – meaning that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution, Americans get $3-9 dollars back in health benefits.

Similarly, witnesses for the Republican majority at today's hearing attempt to ignore the facts behind these life-saving standards, but their claims are worth examining and rebutting.

Republican Witnesses

Anne E. Smith, Ph.D., NERA Economic Consulting

The majority’s first witness attacks the EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis accompanying the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, distorting and ignoring the benefits of reducing toxic air pollution from power plants, in an attempt to discredit the standards.

As my colleague Laurie Johnson points out, Dr. Smith and her firm NERA have “been in the business of anti-regulatory industry-funded studies for a long time. Over the years, the company has conducted numerous analyses at the behest of polluters.” Dr. Smith’s written hearing testimony is no exception – she claims that EPA is misrepresenting the benefits of the MATS by also including benefits obtained from reducing particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution and that only the benefits of reducing toxic air pollution should be calculated.

Dr. Smith’s testimony follows in the same leaden footsteps as a December letter [pdf] to EPA from Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and other House Republicans. In that letter, Upton extensively questions the agency regarding fine particle pollution (PM2.5), its hazards and the monetized benefits from reducing that pollution.

Just last week, EPA responded [pdf] to Rep. Upton’s concerns at length, noting that for particle pollution, the “scientific literature provides no evidence of a threshold below which health effects associated with exposure to fine particles – including premature death  - would not occur.” (my emphasis added)

House Republicans, their witness Dr. Smith (and later, Dr. Goodman), and industry lobbyists should know that many air toxins emitted by power plants are also PM2.5 pollution in their size and composition (despite Smith's baffling claim to the contrary). They realize that reducing these air toxins with a small number of commonly used pollution control devices will also reduce PM2.5. It is only logical and appropriate, accordingly, to calculate the total benefits for Americans from reducing all these pollutants.

It would be perverse to deny or ignore these total benefits, for the simple reason that the pollution control equipment needed to meet the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will also reduce the PM2.5 pollution responsible for so many premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks. It is in fact physically impossible to reduce all toxic air pollution from power plants without also reducing significant amounts of dangerous PM2.5 pollution.

When industry lobbyists and politicians decry the PM2.5 reductions achieved by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, what they really are attacking are the strong standards and pollution controls required to reduce all toxic air pollution from power plants.

Why? Because the only way to reduce all toxic air pollution from power plants is with the pollution control equipment that also reduces PM2.5. In sharp contrast, the only way to actually do what these critics are urging is to cripple the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards so drastically that pollution controls would not be required that reduce PM2.5 and the majority of toxic air pollutants emitted by power plants.

At bottom, it is outrageous – and even immoral – to seek to deny the American people the full benefits delivered by installing pollution controls that reduce so many forms of dangerous air pollution. This enormous health achievement and pay-off deserve celebration. Instead, some politicians and industry lobbyists seem to prefer cynical attacks and the elimination of Americans' right to clean air.

Because Republicans and industry lobbyists know all this, they have found themselves in an untenable position, from which they have concluded they must resort to downplaying or denying the benefits from reducing deadly PM2.5 pollution. EPA's letter squarely refutes these desperate claims, something I address below.

Furthermore, what Dr. Smith and House Republicans understand but choose not to mention is that EPA lacks the analytic tools [pdf, ES-1] to quantify and assign monetized benefits from cutting certain types of toxic pollution, such as acid gases and some forms of mercury. This is not because those air toxin reductions have no benefits, or even because those benefits are small. EPA believes that “these unquantified benefits could be substantial, including the overall value associated with HAP reductions, value of increased agricultural crop and commercial forest yields, visibility improvements, and reductions in nitrogen and acid deposition and the resulting changes in ecosystem functions.” (ES-9)

However, EPA can and does quantify the very real co-benefits from reducing PM2.5 pollution, which is also significantly reduced by the MATS standards. As EPA should, since those are real and substantial benefits to Americans – up to $90 billion annually.

It's actually pitiful to witness last-ditch political efforts to avoid responsibility for cleaning up deadly toxic air pollution that must resort to pretending the enormous benefits of clean air don't exist. Pretending pollution doesn’t kill people doesn’t stop it from happening; only laws like the EPA power plant standards can do that.

Darren MacDonald, Gerdau Long Steel North America

Mr. MacDonald’s testimony on behalf of Gerdau Steel repeats industry talking points on alleged “reliability problems” that he believes will result from the EPA standards. MacDonald asks the question “what if these government projections [relating to electric reliability] are wrong or even partially wrong?” Luckily for Mr. MacDonald, the federal government, regional transmission operators, and numerous private entities have studied the MATS impacts on reliability and concluded that the standards should present no reliability concerns.

EPA has extensively studied [pdf] this issue and concluded no unmanageable issues should arise. So has the Department of Energy, agreeing [pdf] that the standards will not “create resource adequacy issues.”

The Congressional Research Service similarly has concluded [pdf] that industry reliability claims were not based on EPA’s standards as proposed or finalized, and that it is “unlikely that electric reliability will be harmed by the rule.” Private sector reports from M.J. Bradley & Associates, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Charles River Associates confirm these findings. So does PJM interconnection, a regional transmission organization.

MacDonald also raises concerns about electricity prices. These concerns have been addressed by many sources. As I’ve said before, EPA estimates [pdf] (reviewed and approved by OMB) indicate that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards could add approximately $3-4 to some consumers’ monthly electricity bills.

The Congressional Research Service report similarly found that “[e]lectricity prices have declined more than 20 percent in real terms since 1980. The impact of prices changes would be relatively small compared to this downward trend, and well within the normal range of historical price fluctuations.” Power plant reliability and electricity price issues have been addressed and will continue to be addressed, and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have been shown to be hugely beneficial to the American people.

Officials at Gerdau Steel, Mr. MacDonald's company, know that mercury is a dangerous pollutant that needs to be cleaned up. In the past, Gerdau has shown concern over mercury pollution, describing it as a “persistent and bio-accumulative neurotoxin of global concern.” Power plants are the nation’s largest source of man-made mercury emissions. It’s well-documented [pdf] that mercury pollution harms children’s developing brains, and EPA’s standards will reduce mercury emissions by approximately 90%. If Gerdau is committed to reducing mercury from its own industrial operations, as it says [pdf], why shouldn’t power plants have to clean up as well?

Ralph L. Roberson, RMB Consulting & Research, Inc.

Ralph Roberson’s website notes that his current clients include the litigious industry lobbying front, the Utility Air Regulatory Group. With clients like these, it comes as no surprise that Roberson’s written testimony repeats misguided industry talking points that would require radical rewrites to the Clean Air Act and would result in significantly more air pollution for Americans.

Roberson’s suggestions would severely weaken the Clean Air Act and overturn multiple federal court decisions to gut strong toxic air pollution standards. The current Clean Air Act requires these safegaurds to achieve deep cuts in dangerous mercury, lead, dioxins and acid gases from power plants – our nation’s largest source of industrial mercury emissions.

Roberson's testimony urges the elimination of the most protective legal standard for reducing toxic air pollution that the Clean Air Act has included for over twenty-one years. EPA has issued over 100 toxic air pollution standards for other industries during this period, without economic disruption, basing standards on the cleanest plants that achieve the most reductions in toxic air pollution. Power plants – the biggest polluters of them all – should be no exception.

Julie E. Goodman, Ph.D., Gradient Corporation

Dr. Goodman, like Dr. Smith and NERA, attempts to discredit EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants because the standards will also clean up PM2.5 pollution. Dr. Goodman has historically testified or advocated on behalf of industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute to advocate outlier industry positions on the science of clean air.

Indeed, industry consultants with the Gradient Corporation have been favored witnesses for House Republicans during their year-long assault against clean air safeguards. The Gradient Corporation’s Dr. Peter Valberg was invited by the G.O.P. majority to testify at a legislative hearing on two Republicans bills to severely weaken and delay health safeguards against mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic emissions from incinerators, industrial boilers and cement plants. I opposed [pdf] both bills at the same hearing.

Dr. Valberg disputed and downplayed associations between mortality, asthma attacks and outdoor particulate matter pollution – all without citing a single study, much less a peer-reviewed study, in his written testimony. [pdf]

In her written testimony [pdf] for this week’s hearing attacking the mercury and air toxics standards for power plants, Dr. Goodman advances the astonishing suggestion that there is “no correlation between reducing PM2.5 and health benefits.”

This is an outlier position, and there are well-accepted associations between fine particle pollution (PM2.5) and serious health problems including asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, and even death. In 2009, EPA assembled a group of leading experts to study [pdf] the extensive literature on particle pollution. That body concluded [pdf, ch.2], based on the available literature, that a causal relationship exists between PM2.5 and mortality and cardiovascular effects; a likely causal relationship between PM2.5 and respiratory effects; and a "suggestive causal relationship" between PM2.5 and cancer and reproductive problems.

Dr. George D. Thurston, tenured Professor of Environmental Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, testified [pdf] before the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in 2011 to update and reaffirm these findings. Dr. Thurston described the impacts of fine particle pollution as follows:

Fine particles (PM2.5), such as those that result from power plants and diesel trucks, defeat the defensive mechanisms of the lung, and can become lodged deep in the lung where they can cause a variety of health problems. New evidence indicates that short-term exposures to air pollution cause both respiratory and cardiac effects, including more heart attacks. In addition, my own research indicates that long-term exposure to fine particles increases premature mortality, and such exposures in the general population have been estimated to take years from the life expectancy of people living in our most polluted cities, relative to those living in cleaner cities....

EPA similarly has found [pdf] that the “scientific literature provides no evidence of a threshold below which health effects associated with exposure to fine particles – including premature death – would not occur.” This “no threshold” conclusion was independently reviewed and confirmed by EPA's official Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, the Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis (and separately, the Health Effects Subcommittee of this Council), EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the National Academy of Sciences.

But the Republican witness, Dr. Goodman, knows better. In the face of this broad scientific consensus, from the country’s most esteemed and expert scientific advisory bodies and professionals, an industry consultant from the Gradient Corporation suggests that there is “no correlation between reducing PM2.5 and health benefits.”

Reducing particle pollution as a co-benefit of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards every year will save up to 11,000 lives, avoid thousands of heart attacks and over one hundred thousand asthma attacks. Despite what one carefully selected Republican witness would have you believe, this will mean real health benefits for the American people.

Harrison Tsosie, Navajo Nation

Members of the Navajo Nation and other Native American tribes have expressed support for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Speaking for many of these supporters, Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition has said the standards are “big news, because until now there hasn't been federal enforcement of these emissions," and “[w]e're very happy the EPA stood their ground on behalf of our children.”

Many members of the Navajo Nation live near power generation facilities. Studies have found that the majority of mercury emitted by power plants tends to deposit locally, meaning those living nearest to power plants, like the Navajo, could stand to benefit most from toxic air pollution standards for power plants.

Reflecting divisions within the Navajo Nation, however, Republicans have chosen instead to invite the Navajo Attorney General, Harrison Tsosie, who opposes the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Some within the Navajo Nation have expressed concern over the standards’ alleged impacts on their community, particularly the standards’ impacts on jobs. For her part, “Johns doesn't buy the job loss argument”:

"Just think how many Navajos are going to be employed installing the new equipment," she said. "This rule is going to create jobs, not destroy them."

And if the plants do, in fact, have to shut down, something is going to have to go up to replace all that lost electricity, she argued.

"It opens the door wide for alternative energy," Johns said.

EPA estimates [pdf] that the standards will create approximately 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs in the utility sector.

Democratic Witnesses

Reverend Mitchell C. Hescox, President and CEO, Evangelical Environmental Network

Reverend Hescox’s testimony highlights the dangers of mercury pollution, its impacts on the unborn, and the terrible moral and environmental justice consequences of power plant mercury pollution. Reverend Hescox’s testimony shows that protecting our children from dangerous neurotoxins such as mercury is a moral issue that should enjoy bipartisan support. 

The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) has actively supported EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in recognition of their enormous public health benefits. In addition to testifying at the hearing, EEN has, among other things, launched a series of ads urging lawmakers to support these life-saving standards. This multi-state bipartisan ad campaign reflects EEN’s position that they “expect members of Congress who claim that they are pro-life to use their power to protect life, especially the unborn”. This is based on EEN’s “belief that mercury offers a significant potential for hindering our children from developing a pure and wonderful life.” Other religious groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, strongly support the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as well. As EEN rightly points out, we all want our children to live the healthiest and safest lives possible, and EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants help all Americans protect their children from mercury pollution.

Josh Bivens, Ph.D., Acting Research and Policy Director, Economic Policy Institute

Dr. Bivens’ testimony provides an in-depth examination of the employment impacts of EPA’s finalized Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, addressed at greater length in an Economic Policy Institute report entitled “The ‘toxics rule’ and jobs: The job-creation potential of the EPA’s new rule on toxic power plant emissions.”

Dr. Bivens and EPI use a conservative methodology to conclude that due to the availability of labor and other factors, EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will mean at least 84,500 jobs in the short term. Using what they believe to be a more realistic methodology, the report estimates up to 117,000 jobs could be created as a result of the standards. Even EPA’s lower estimate [pdf] of 46,000 short term jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs in the utility sector will put Americans back to work building the pollution controls that power plants will install to meet these life-saving standards.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air Project, Climate & Clean Air program

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