Sherco Generating Station, Becker, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster, Creative Commons license 2.0

Donald Trump's administration is getting set to finalize its rollback of Obama-era regulations on mercury emissions by coal-fired power plants. That's even though America's utility companies don't even want the rules rolled back, because they've already complied with the rules. But Trump's Environmental "Protection" Agency is going to go ahead and rewrite the regulations anyway, because 1) Obama did it, so it's bad, 2) it's part of Trump's sacred mission to boost coal company profits for as long as possible before the industry dies out altogether, and 3) It will fundamentally change how government calculates the costs and benefits of environmental regulations, making it easier to rig the rules in favor of dirty industry.

As the Washington Post explains, big energy companies fear the rule change could result in costly lawsuits over a matter the industry thought was settled. Exelon, one of the biggest utility companies in the country, formally asked the EPA to leave the rule alone, calling the rollback "an action that is entirely unnecessary, unreasonable, and universally opposed by the power generation sector."

Kathy Robertson, a senior manager for environmental policy at the company, said the industry long ago complied with the rule.

"And it works," she said. "The sector has gotten so much cleaner as a result of this rule."

Sorry, Exelon. Donald Trump doesn't quite understand the math, but he knows Obama Bad, and he also knows coal baron Bob Murray, his good pal and coal whisperer, wants the rule changed. So the rule must be changed.


Now, it's not that anyone, even in the coal biz, is especially fond of mercury, the neurotoxin that recent studies show may be even more poisonous than previously thought. There's not much of a mercury lobby out there; it's just one of several nasties emitted by burning coal. But as we've explained previously, big polluters want to change the way the costs and benefits of regulations are calculated, and if that means loosening mercury regulations, well sometimes to make a deregulation omelette, you have to have some brain-damaging heavy metals in your eggs.

Now don't panic, we're not going to make you think about math. Rather, the rule changes are yet another example of how Team Trump changes the definitions of things to give a great big benefit to dirty energy, while insisting that it's "protecting" the environment. We'll let WaPo handle the explanation here:

[The EPA] plans to declare that it is not "appropriate and necessary" for the government to limit harmful pollutants from power plants, even though every utility in America has complied with standards put in place in 2011 under President Barack Obama. While it will technically keep existing restrictions on mercury in place, it means the government would not be able to count collateral benefits — such as reducing soot and smog — when it sets limits on toxic air pollutants.

It's a rollback that industry officials argue could open the door to new legal fights, prompt some plants to turn off their pollution controls and ultimately sicken more Americans — all so that the administration can rewire how the government weighs the costs of regulation [...]

The Trump administration has argued that it is inappropriate to count such "co-benefits" when considering the economic impact of regulation, saying Obama used creative math to justify burdensome new requirements.

"When you do a cost-benefit analysis, you should address the pollutant that's the subject of the regulation," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a recent interview, adding that "98, 99 percent of the benefits were not for mercury."

Got that? The regulations sharply cut emissions of mercury. When combined with state regulations that came before Obama's 2011 rule, mercury emissions were reduced by 85 percent since 2006. And the resulting anti-pollution equipment and plant closures also resulted in additional health improvements and cleaner air beyond just the reductions in mercury, like reduced soot and other pollutants. Therefore, says the administration, you can't count those benefits, NOT FAIR. Even though that calculus wasn't invented by Obama — it dates back to the Reagan administration.

It's a bit like saying if you stop smoking to improve your lungs' health, the benefits to your heart shouldn't be counted.

As the Post story details, the power industry has actually cleaned up at far less cost than the Obama administration estimated when it proposed the rules. The old EPA, where the P stood for something, estimated the industry would spend between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion annually, but real costs turned out to only be about $18 billion (about $3 billion a year). Now all the power plants in the country either meet the standards, or were shut down because they'd have been too expensive to refit.

The economic realities of the energy market make it unlikely that coal will bounce back, even if the Trump rules are adopted and survive court challenges. Utilities have switched to natural gas or renewables, and those shuttered coal plants will almost certainly never reopen.

But the new rules sure could cause some fuckery for the utility companies, which fear coal companies or conservative groups might sue utilities, which passed on some costs of upgrades to consumers. If the regulation was "unnecessary," then obviously it would be right and just to extract those lost coal profits for the coal companies, and to "help" the consumers by soaking the utilities. Plus, the likelihood that some plants will just switch off the pollution controls altogether.

The utilities just want to find one regulatory regime and stick with it, like the car companies that want predictable gas-mileage regulations and the timber companies that have agreed to work with environmentalists on forest management rules. But Trump's EPA is determined to finish up the new rules as soon as possible, because there's an election coming up and it's vital to smash as many environmental regulations as possible.

Damn, why don't these selfish businesses recognize there's a holy war to fight? It's like they just want to make money!

[WaPo / Photo: Tony Webster, Creative Commons license 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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