Trump administration expected to weaken mercury rule for coal plants

(Reuters) – The Trump administration is expected on Thursday to withdraw the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that forced coal-fired power plants to cut their mercury emissions, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the daily coronavirus task force briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The move would leave the so-called Mercury and Air Toxic Standards in place for now, but could pave the way for lawsuits from companies opposed to it and prevent similar regulations from being implemented in the future, the sources said.

An Environmental Protection Agency representative did not comment on whether an announcement would come Thursday, saying only that a decision would be made public once the administrative process is complete.

At issue is a 2016 conclusion by President Barack Obama’s EPA that forcing coal-fired power plants to slash mercury output was justified because savings to consumers on healthcare costs would exceed compliance costs. Mercury can harm pregnant women and put infants and children at risk of developmental problems.

The calculations used at the time, however, accounted for how pollution-control equipment at coal plants would reduce emissions of other harmful substances that come out of smokestacks, in addition to mercury.

President Donald Trump’s EPA said in 2018 it had reviewed the justification for the rule and believed it was inappropriate to have included the benefits of reducing emissions other than mercury. It proposed withdrawing the justification, but said it had no intention of rescinding the rule itself.

Thursday’s announcement would finalize that proposal.

Electric utilities have pushed back on the potential loosening of mercury requirements, saying they have already invested in expensive technology to cut emissions of the dangerous pollutant, and had sought and secured rate increases from power consumers to cover the costs.

But the U.S. coal industry has railed against the mercury rule, and blamed it for putting hundreds of coal-fired power plants out of business in recent years.

“If the finding that supports MATS is withdrawn, coal companies are expected to campaign to invalidate the rule,” U.S. law firm Ballard Spahr said in an emailed statement.

Ellen Kurlansky, a former air policy analyst at EPA who helped develop the MATS rule, slammed the move.

“This action, which is a gift to the coal industry at the expense of all Americans, is an attack on public health justified by a phony cost-benefit analysis that purposely inflates the cost of MATS and ignores the value of the human health benefits,” she said.

Trump made it a central promise of his 2016 campaign to revive the U.S. coal industry, which he said had been unfairly targeted by Obama’s climate and environmental policies.

Reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Boston; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis

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