The Biden administration announced tougher limits Wednesday on smog-forming pollutants from power plants and other industrial facilities, a move that officials said would reduce air pollution in downwind communities and help Americans suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems.
This interstate air pollution regulation, known as the “good neighbor” rule, has long-pitted Rust Belt and Appalachian states against those on the East Coast. These heavily populated states are especially vulnerable to pollution blown in by the nation’s prevailing west-to-east winds. Many of these states have argued for years that they cannot meet federal air quality standards without the federal government’s help in cutting smog and soot pollution that originates across their borders.
For the first time, the EPA has also included three western states in the regulation — California, Nevada and Utah — where industrial polluters contribute to smog levels in states to the east.
“More than 80 million people live in downwind areas that do not meet health standards for this pollutant,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Wednesday. “Our more vulnerable communities are hardest hit by these devastating effects.”
Power plants, factory smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes emit nitrogen oxide — which contributes to ozone smog — and also release soot and other harmful chemicals. These carry serious health risks, causing breathing problems and aggravating asthma. EPA officials estimate the new restrictions would cut nitrogen oxide emissions from upwind states by roughly 70,000 tons by the summer of 2026, preventing up to 1,300 premature deaths and reducing hospital and emergency room visits. Summer is considered the “ozone season” because of the way hot, sunny weather interacts with air pollutants, worsening levels of ozone, a large component of smog.
Agency officials estimate about 25,000 tons of the nitrogen oxide reductions would come from power plants, which must begin following the new standard this year. Other industrial sources, such as cements plants, iron and steel mills, and glass manufacturers, have until 2026 to comply and would make up the remaining 45,000 tons.
This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected a challenge to the EPA’s proposed rule by coal companies and others, allowing the agency to finalize the new standards.
Satya Rhodes-Conway, mayor of Madison, Wis., said the city is doing what it can to cut ozone pollution from cars and buses by encouraging electrification, but emissions from upwind industrial sources are out of its control.
“We still have multiple nonattainment zones for ozone and with the hotter summers that we know are coming from climate change, we are at risk of exacerbating this problem.”
Though the new requirements do not target planet-warming carbon pollution from industrial facilities, they could affect climate change indirectly.
They would require coal and gas burning power plants’ owners to invest in upgrading their pollution controls, making it more expensive for them to operate. The pollution limits could be especially problematic for owners of the nation’s dirtiest coal plants, who may decide to shut down or switch to burning natural gas, rather than install costly new technology.
Republicans and the coal industry have long criticized the regulation for this reason, arguing it would lead to job losses and unfairly burden states that still generate most of their electricity from coal-burning plants.
“Americans and American businesses will continue to pay increasingly more for electricity that is less and less reliable” as a result of the new rule, Conor Bernstein, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, wrote in an email. “Even worse, the EPA is unilaterally making these decisions for the states — more than 18 of which use coal as their most common source of electricity generation.”
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned electric companies, said in a statement that it was still reviewing the details of the new rule but appreciated the “increased flexibilities in the final rule’s trading program,” which gives power plants pollution allowances that decrease over time.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who earns money from his family’s coal business, and who had asked for the new pollution limits to be delayed, issued a statement condemning the regulation as “reckless."
Many Democrats and environmental advocates praised the new limits, saying the agency had struck a balance by ensuring the reliability of the U.S. electric grid while also benefiting public health.
“The air pollution blowing into Delaware from our upwind neighbors not only negatively impacts the health of our most vulnerable but also creates an economic burden for our state,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement, noting that more than 90 percent of his state’s air pollution comes from outside its borders. “I applaud EPA’s work to prioritize the health and well-being of all Americans with this final rule.”
The agency’s own estimates show the new limits would cost industrial polluters millions of dollars and, once fully implemented, would increase the cost of electricity production by slightly more than 1 percent. Even so, EPA officials say the benefits of cutting ozone-forming pollution would outweigh the compliance costs by about by $3.7 billion by 2026.
“This rule is about fairness,” Regan added. “Some states have done all they can do to control ozone pollution and their counterparts upwind are being asked to do the same … and not push pollution across state boundaries.”