TCS Daily

Extreme Measures

By Willie Soon - April 30, 2002 12:00 AM

The good news from the most recent EPA National Air Quality 2000's report issued September 2001 is that "national air quality levels measured at thousands of monitoring stations across the country have shown improvements over the past 20 years." This is especially positive news considering that the nation's gross domestic product has increased 158% and vehicle miles traveled rose by 143%. Meanwhile the population grew by 36% since the 1970s and energy use a mere 45%.

But do we appreciate the good news? Many worry that even minute traces of "hazardous" emissions or even nontoxic ones such as carbon dioxide (CO2) damage our environment or overheat the Earth.

Jeffords' plan

It was with that mindset that Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont and 19 of his colleagues introduced the "Clean Power Act" (S.556). The bill would set Jan. 1, 2007, as the date that U.S. electric power plants with more than a 15 megawatt capacity cut their sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions by 75% and their mercury emissions (Hg) by 90% from 1999 levels while reducing CO2 emissions to 1990 levels.

The constraint in Jeffords' bill regarding CO2 is only slightly less restrictive than that proposed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. President Clinton never submitted the proposal negotiated by his own vice president, Al Gore, to the Senate for approval for one simple reason. The Senate prior to Kyoto had voted 95-0 against the United States making any commitment that "could result in serious harm to the United States economy, including significant job loss, trade disadvantages, increased energy and consumer costs, or any combination thereof." And Clinton's own Energy Department had found Kyoto would have cost the U.S. economy $400 billion a year.

Putting aside S.556's CO2 emission cut, Jefford's bill still would pose problems because of its measures dealing with SO2, NOX and Hg.

Equal treatment, unequal effort

One big problem is that the bill would treat all utilities equally, regardless of the cuts they'd already made in emissions.

The blanket cuts, the bill's proponents have argued, are needed to "ensure that significant emission reductions are achieved in both the eastern and western regions." But utilities that already have made pollution cuts would be punished for attacking emissions' problems before Congress has acted.

Places where utilities produce low emissions would face impossible standards to meet. As Jeffry Sterba, CEO of the Public Service Company of New Mexico, noted the bills targets for reducing SO2, NOX and Hg in S. 556 "appear to be a policy response to conditions that simply do not exist in our part of the country."

Meanwhile, utilities contemplating investing in cleaner technology are deterred from doing so. The very possibility of new standards not taking into account past clean technology investment serves to retard such investment. Gerard Anderson, president of DTE Energy Resources, points out that "because of multiple, uncoordinated and overlapping emission control requirements, the electric power industry faces enormous uncertainty as it tries to develop appropriate plans to build new power generation capacity, upgrade plants, and add pollution controls."

Mercury vapors

Another significant problem with the Jeffords bill is how it would deal with mercury emissions, a prevalent emission for plants fired by coal, the nation's most abundant electricity and energy resource.

Mercury emission is considered a major concern because of adverse health effects. But toxicity usually is in the dose, and there sits the safety question.

Mercury vapor, when transformed into an organic form of methylmercury by water-borne bacteria, is toxic. It may arrive in the food chain in the aquatic system by bioaccumulating in large predators, such as whales, sharks, swordfish, king mackerel and tile. If a human consumes fish contaminated by methylmercury, then the nervous system can be adversely affected.

A June 2000 National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) report went so far as to issue a public health warning that called for women to not consume "large amounts of fish and seafood during pregnancy." The committee had concluded "that the risk to that [pregnant women] population is likely to be sufficient to result in an increase in the number of children who have to struggle to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes or special education."

Then, on Dec. 14, 2000, the EPA singled out mercury from the pool of 189 substances labeled as "hazardous air pollutants" under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments as the most toxic agent that must be regulated because of its potentially harmful health effects.

Mercurial facts

But there is a question in health circles about the basis for concern raised by the NAS committee about mercury.

"There is some junk science at work here," said Dr. Charles Lockwood, chairman of both the 43,000-member American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University, in a March 2002 interview. "We've reviewed the basis for their findings and there isn't a lot of substance to it. ... The jury is not in on the real risk to women."

Why such a strong statement from Dr. Lockwood? It's not surprising considering the questionable data upon which the NAS report based its finding of an association between low-dose prenatal methylmercury (MeHg) exposure and learning-disabilities in children.

The NAS report itself noted: "Of three large epidemiological studies, two studies -- one conducted in the Faroe Islands and one in New Zealand -- found such associations [between chronic low-dose prenatal methylmercury exposure and neurotoxicity in children], but those effects were not seen in a major study conducted in Seychelles islands." Why the difference? The explanation may lie in what the NAS committee decided to ignore. As NAS added: "The Faroe Islands population was also exposed to relatively high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). However ... the committee concluded that PCB exposure did not invalidate the use of the Faroe Islands study as the basis of risk assessment for MeHg [methylmercury]."

Exposure to high concentrations of mercury has horrible effects. But the NAS study on the health risk associated with low-level exposure to methylmercury provides an ambiguous result at best.

What's really best?

So wouldn't it be best to reduce mercury emissions to as close to zero as possible?

To that end, much progress has been made in this country. The DOE has noted that "in 1993, U.S. yearly [mercury] emission totaled 242 tons [and by] the end of the decade, emissions had declined to less than 160 tons per year." That significant one-third reduction was achieved mainly through control of mercury emissions from municipal and hazardous waste combustors, batteries, paints, medical waste incinerators, and so on.
The result is that today the United States accounts for about 3% of the world's inventory of mercury emissions.

So, why not more? Why not the 90% cut in mercury emissions from utilities in four years as the Jeffords' bill would require?

Technology simply may not allow it - at least as far as coal-fired plants are concerned. The DOE admitted as much when it reported that a mercury "pollution control system can be effective in removing as high as 90% of the incoming coal's mercury levels in a few cases while in others, very little mercury is removed."

Furthermore, U.S. power plants in 1999 accounted for only 30% of U.S. emissions of mercury - just 43 tons a year. A 38.7-ton reduction from utilities would mean that nearly 120 tons of emissions from other sources would still be entering the environment.

Ironically, an October 2001 Energy Information Agency report commissioned by Jeffords and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut warned against rushing ahead with the strict curbs they proposed: "Meeting the individual limits for NOX, SO2, Hg, and CO2 will all require significant effort; the CO2 and Hg limits are likely the most difficult to meet. ... [M]eeting the assumed Hg limit of 4.3 tons probably would require some fuel switching. This limit for Hg implies removing 95% of the Hg in coal used by electricity generators today. For many combinations of plant and coal type, existing technology may not be able to achieve this level of removal."

Finally, the agency noted that the very technological advances to achieve lower emissions that the bill hoped to spur could be threatened by its passage: "[T]he more rapid technology development assumed in the advanced technology case and in the CEF [Clean Energy Future] cases [requested by Sens. Jeffords and Lieberman] is more uncertain and represents a higher level of risk for the ultimate success and timing of the technology improvement."

When costs outweigh benefits

And what would be the cost of achieving that reduction, along with the others in the Jeffords bill? The DOE recently guesstimated that the emission limits imposed by the bill would raise the cumulative cost of generating electricity in the United States by 8 or 9%, or between $142 billion and $177 billion.

The bottom line is that the aggressive control of mercury proposed in S.556 would be costly and could well prove ineffective. Improved health effects from an even "cleaner" United States with even less mercury will not be so easily detectable.

Thomas DeGregori, an economist at the University of Houston and author of the recent book The Environment, Natural Resources, and Modern Technology, commented, "Increasingly, we hear impossible demands for a zero-risk society. ... Justice requires that the poorest and most needy in the world have the opportunity to experience the changes that have benefited the rest of us. ... Taking reasonable risks turns out to provide us greater safety. Those who would force us to pursue the impossible goal of absolute safety put us all in greater jeopardy."

Thus, S.556 repeats an old story. It is a good intention to save those most vulnerable from harm. As Jeffords says in his web page, "More than 30% of residents still live in regions with poor air quality" across America. But the restrictions in S.556 if enacted, could end up costing the poor, who would pay more for electricity, while gaining little in health benefits from any chronic Hg exposure because Hg emissions in the United States have already fallen dramatically from their peak emission 50 years ago.


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