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Protecting our Air, Ensuring Reliability

by Gina McCarthy

Over the past few years, EPA has taken a number of steps under the Clean Air Act to address harmful air pollutants like mercury, acid gases, sulfur dioxide and arsenic.

These standards will yield massive public health benefits. Two of the standards alone – the proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the recently finalized Cross State Air Pollution Rule – will prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood asthma symptoms a year.

Some have raised concerns about the impact these standards, and others that we are currently working on, will have on our electricity supply.

First – many of these standards are years or even decades overdue and are court ordered, and they rely heavily on existing, cost-effective technologies already in use at hundreds of facilities across thecountry. Second – it’s important to remember that facilities will have three years to comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards once they are finalized, and states have the discretion to grant them an additional year. In addition, many states have already taken steps that will help them comply with the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which ensures communities do not have to bear the burden of pollution emitted by facilities located in another state.

As for reliability concerns in the future, that’s exactly why EPA conducts extensive analysis of proposed standards – and will do similar analyses prior to finalizing any future standards.

Our analysis of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule concluded they would have a minimal impact on reliability, both regionally and nationwide. That finding was echoed by independent analysts like the Analysis Group and the Bipartisan Policy Center.

If there are concerns about local reliability issues – for example, if a plant in a particular area is retiring and we are not sure how its capacity is going to be replaced – the Clean Air Act gives us the flexibility to address them on a case-by-case basis.

Power plants retire for many reasons, but the decision to retire a power plant is ultimately a market-driven business decision. Many of the plants that will retire in the coming years operate infrequently, are decades old and do not have modern pollution controls installed. Whatever the reason, when we conduct our analysis, we take these retirements into account to ensure we have a complete picture of the electricity supply as we make our decisions.

Finally, we work closely with utilities and Regional Transmission Organizations – the folks who actually deliver the electricity – and listen closely to their input. Many of them weighed in during the public
comment period for the proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and we are reviewing their comments now to ensure the final standard is based on the best possible information.

The bottom line: we can protect our health, and our kids’ health, without impacting families’ and businesses’ access to reliable electricity. We know we can, because we’ve been doing it under the Clean Air Act for forty years.

Gina McCarthy is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

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