Apr 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Trump administration to weaken mercury emission regulations

Coal plant.

The emissions from the Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The Trump administration is expected on Thursday to withdraw the legal justification for an Obama-era regulation that forced coal-fired power plants to cut mercury and other toxic air pollution, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: It's another step by the administration to relax health-related regulations even during the coronavirus pandemic. The administration curtailed vehicle emissions standards despite studies linking pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates.

How it works: The EPA under former President Obama justified the rule by arguing the public-health benefits vastly outweighed compliance costs when including co-benefits of reducing other harmful types of pollution, like sulfur dioxide, alongside mercury.

  • In its proposal of this rule change in 2018, the Trump EPA excluded the consideration of those co-benefits, thereby concluding the compliance costs outweighed the public health benefits.

By the numbers:

  • With the co-benefits, Obama's EPA said the rule would create $80 billion in public-health benefits over five years, compared to the $9.6 billion in annual compliance costs.
  • Without the co-benefits, the public health benefits of reducing mercury pollution are just $6 million annually.

The intrigue: "By reducing the health benefit of regulations on paper, while raising their economic costs, the new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant that the fossil fuel industry has deemed too costly to control," per the Times.

Yes, but: Today's move won't remove the rule outright and you can expect legal challenges regardless. Also, its impact on the ground with actual coal plants will be minimal, given virtually all of them have already complied with the original 2012 rule.

What we're watching via Axios' Amy Harder: Whether the Trump administration seeks to use this change of excluding co-benefits on other existing regulations. If it does, it could be one of the most significant environmental changes of the Trump era.

Go deeper