EPA power plant rule could lead to drastic cuts in traditional air pollutants — study

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014

A new study finds that allowing more flexible compliance with U.S. EPA’s upcoming power plant rule wouldn’t only lead to less greenhouse gas emissions — it would lead to cleaner air and healthier ecosystems, too.

Researchers from Harvard University and Syracuse University modeled three different possible scenarios for the June 2 proposal, which seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s existing power plants for the first time. They measured reductions in four different pollutants: fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury.”It’s very clear from this study that strong carbon standards would result in cleaner, healthier air, with all states seeing some benefits,” said Kathy Fallon Lambert, director of the Science Policy Exchange for the Harvard Forest at Harvard University and a co-author of the study.

In the first scenario, EPA would limit its proposed regulation to an “inside the fence line” approach, meaning that it would only allow efforts to cut carbon on the power plant itself. The two other scenarios offer an “outside the fence line” approach, in which EPA would allow a number of mechanisms — emissions trading, carbon pricing, fuel switching from coal to natural gas, or renewable energy, for example — to count toward CO2 reductions. Reductions were measured against a business-as-usual trend up to 2020.

While the first scenario lowered carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and mercury by 2 to 3 percent — and actually slightly increased sulfur dioxide emissions — the two other scenarios decreased CO2 by up to 29 percent and, while cutting sulfur dioxide by 27 percent, decreased mercury by 27 percent and nitrogen oxides by up to 22 percent.

The states that are most likely to benefit from pollution reductions are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Health effects from poor air quality include asthma, heart attacks and death. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides cause acid rain, which can pollute lakes, streams and forests, as well as eat away at buildings and other structures.

Getting a jump on June 2

The study is the first of its kind to measure the non-carbon benefits of greenhouse gas regulations on a state-by-state level.

“We know of no similar studies that actually map the air quality benefits for the entire U.S. at a 12-kilometer grid resolution,” Lambert said. “It’s a very, very detailed study.”

In Washington, lawyers have been grappling over whether EPA’s authority would allow the agency to accept “outside the fence line” measures. Although these efforts would most likely lead to greater emissions reductions at a lower price, industry attorneys say it is beyond EPA’s scope to regulate past the limits of an individual power plant.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s measured non-carbon benefits as part of its proposal to EPA on how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the part of the law EPA will use to establish power plant standards. The analysis found that nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide reductions under NRDC’s plan could lead to close to $20 billion in benefits.

Lambert said the study has yet to be peer-reviewed and submitted to a scientific journal because the authors wanted to publicize the paper before EPA’s release of the power plant standards.

The authors plan to follow up this summer with two additional studies, based on what EPA will propose. One will focus on the health benefits of the study, and the other will focus on the ecosystem benefits.