WASHINGTON (CN) – In a rare show of solidarity, senators from both parties pushed Thursday for legislation that would dramatically reduce dangerous pollutants such as sulfur and mercury after similar efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency were rejected by the courts. “I see no need to delay for a minuet!” Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander exclaimed.
“These pollutants are silent killers,” Delaware Democratic Sen. Thomas Carper said as chair of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.
Sulfur dioxide emissions alone kill more than 24,000 Americans a year and 600,000 babies are born to moms with high levels of mercury annually. 186 million Americans live where air pollution reaches life-threatening levels, he added.
Mercury is a neurotoxin linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, and neurological problems. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide can cause lung damage, and kill at high levels.
“The power industry is capable of making significant reductions quickly,” said EPA representative Regina McCarthy of the Office of Air and Radiation. “The technology is there.”
The hearing comes as the Senate considers a cap-and-trade bill on carbon emissions.
“I don’t want sulfur, nitrogen and mercury to get lost in all of the talk about carbon,” Alexander stated.
Republicans and Democrats were both concerned about the harmful effects of the three pollutants, but Republicans paid particular attention to regulation consistency. They said that by striking down the rules, power companies would be left with uncertain regulations.
There was some disagreement over the extent pollutants should be reduced.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals struck down two EPA rules last year that would have capped the three pollutants, but allowed the rules to remain in place until the agency issues new rules.
The Clean Air Interstate Rule of 2005 would have eventually cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 70 and 60 percent of 2003 levels respectively, using a cap-and-trade program.
The Clean Air Mercury Rule of 2005 would have eventually reduced mercury emissions by from coal power plants by almost 70 percent through a cap and trade system that would not have taken effect until after 2020. Coal plants are the largest source of mercury in the nation.
Under such cap-and-trade, the government sets a limit to harmful emissions. Companies are then issued emission credits. Those which emit less than allowed can sell their credit to those which emit more than allowed.
The court rejected the rules for several reasons, but one was that they did not address the problems of downwind states, which can become home to pollutants from upwind states. The plaintiffs had also argued that the cap-and-trade system would have still allowed for condensed areas of pollution.
“Now we face an uncertain regulatory future,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe said.
“We are left with an EPA that some believe lacks legal authority to permit region-wide emissions trading,” Inhofe added. “It’s imperative that we provide EPA with authority to implement CAIR.”
All Senators agreed that the EPA should be given the authority to implement the rules.
Carper argued that the ability of pollutants to move from one state to the next is precisely why federal regulation is needed.
McCarthy from the EPA assured Senators that the agency will continue forward with a rule that will impose standards to make all power plants pollute the same as the cleanest 12 percent. She added that, unlike the past rules, it should be “able to withstand legal challenge.”
“I see no need to delay for a minuet” in reducing those chemicals, Alexander exclaimed.
John Stephenson, a director of the U.S. Accountability Office, said coal plants can reduce their mercury emissions by 90 percent with technology that already exists, and that it would cost each household about 10 cents a month.
Carper remarked that the cost benefit analysis has “got to be off the charts.”
But while Ohio Republican Ranking Member, Sen. Voinovich agreed that steep reductions in mercury and other pollutants are necessary and possible, he argued against a 90 percent reduction, and said he doubted old plants could do it. He also said that if the climate bill currently before the Senate is passed, such restrictions would be unnecessary.
Senator Voinovich has drafted legislation that would grant the EPA authority to implement the Clean Air Interstate Rule, but he said nothing about the Clean Air Mercury Rule while promoting his bill.
Alexander and Carper are also working on a bill that Carper said will reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury in emissions through a cap-and-trade program, and said they plan to introduce the bill within the next few weeks.