New climate change rules for power plants come with perks for public health

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    A plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire. President Barack Obama Monday unveiled the final version of his unprecedented regulations clamping down on carbon dioxide emissions from existing U.S. power plants. The Obama administration first proposed the rule last year. Opponents plan to sue immediately to stop the rule's implementation. (AP file photo)

    A plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire. President Barack Obama Monday unveiled the final version of his unprecedented regulations clamping down on carbon dioxide emissions from existing U.S. power plants. The Obama administration first proposed the rule last year. Opponents plan to sue immediately to stop the rule's implementation. (AP file photo)

    For the first time, the U.S. is putting limits on how much carbon pollution power plants can spew out. It’s an effort to slow global warming, but the climate won’t necessarily be the only—or even first—beneficiary.

    “Climate is a long term problem,” said Peter DeCarlo, an air quality researcher at Drexel University. “The air pollution that we’re reducing through this rule will be kind of more acute in terms of a much faster benefit to human health.”

    President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, which has been in draft form since last June, on Monday. The finalized rule requires power plants across the country to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels within 15 years.

    Although the standards don’t demand specific improvements to air quality, DeCarlo said that bringing more coal-fired power plants off-line to meet that carbon target would slash the emissions of other pollutants that are hazardous to human health. Those include nitrogen oxides, which can react to form ozone, as well as sulfur dioxide, which can form sulfuric acid, a lung irritant and component in acid rain. Less of each oxide also means fewer fine particles in the air.

    “The changes in pollution that these regulations will bring will indeed reduce premature deaths, asthma attacks, and reduce coronary artery disease deaths as well,” said Arthur Frank, a physician and professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.

    A cutback on the use of coal would also specifically drop how much mercury and other heavy metals are in the air. 

    “These are neurotoxins,” said Rutgers environmental engineer Monica Mazurek. “Once in the air they can be transported along long distances to other population centers, to rural areas, and then these metals are there–they do not degrade.”

    How big of an impact the EPA regulations will have on health in a given area will depend on exactly how each state chooses to meet its individual goal, as well as geography, since a lot of pollution is carried downwind.

    “What’s emitted in Ohio can end up in New Jersey in a day and a half or so,” noted Mazurek.

    State plans are due by 2018. Some power plants might switch from coal to natural gas, or better yet in terms of emissions, move to solar or wind. Other high emitters might opt not to change, instead paying for carbon offsets in an emission credit trading market.

    New Jersey has already shifted away from coal, which contributed just 3 percent of the state’s energy in 2012, relying instead on nuclear power and natural gas. Pennsylvania, in contrast, is split more evenly, sourcing 40 percent of its energy from coal; 33 percent from nuclear; and 24 percent from natural gas. Delaware gets 82 percent of its energy from natural gas and 16 percent from coal.

    The EPA will likely face legal challenges from multiple states over the regulations. Joseph Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, said while Delaware and Pennsylvania are likely to embrace the rule, New Jersey could be more reluctant.

    “But no state in its right mind is going to want the EPA to develop a plan for them,” he said. “That’s the fall back position.”

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