WASHINGTON – The Bush administration set new limits on smog and soot pollution Thursday with the aim of benefiting tens of millions of people who live downwind of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants (search) in the East, South and Midwest.
The new regulation covers 28 states, mostly east of the Mississippi River, and the District of Columbia. It requires most of them to cut smog-forming nitrogen oxides (search) and soot-producing sulfur dioxide (search) that can drift by wind long distances across state lines, the Environmental Protection Agency (search) said.
EPA's new "Clean Air Interstate Rule" requires phased-in reductions in the volume of air pollution that states can allow. By 2015, the nation's pollution from nitrogen oxides would be reduced by 61 percent below 2003 levels. Sulfur dioxide pollution would be reduced by 73 percent.
"CAIR will result in the largest pollution reductions and health benefits of any air rule in more than a decade," said Stephen Johnson, EPA's acting administrator and President Bush's nominee to be the full-time agency chief. "The action we are taking will require all 28 states to be good neighbors, helping states downwind by controlling airborne emissions at their source."
The regulations will help states and counties meet new federal standards for healthy air. The agency said 474 counties around the country have too much smog and 224 counties have too much soot.
EPA estimates the rule also will prevent 17,000 premature deaths, 22,000 nonfatal heart attacks and 700,000 respiratory ailments from bronchitis and asthma each year, and reduce haze afflicting parks and forests.
It is up to states to decide how best to achieve those reductions, but the rule envisions that the most cost-effective means is by requiring power plants to install new scrubbers for sulfur dioxide or chemical processes for nitrogen oxides.
"This is going to provide a big boost across the eastern United States for communities suffering from unhealthy particulate and smog pollution levels," said Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense (search).
But the rule also is expected to boost consumers' monthly electric bills by at least a few cents more within 15 years.
EPA said the benefits outweighed costs, dollar for dollar, 25-to-1. By 2015, EPA said, there would be up to $100 billion in yearly health benefits and $2 billion in yearly visibility benefits, compared with about $4 billion in yearly costs.
Homeowners in the United States now spend on average about $70 a month for electricity, according to industry figures. The new rule is not expected to result in any significant changes in retail electricity prices between now and 2020, EPA has said.
But it would add a fraction of a penny to the cost of each kilowatt hour by 2020, the agency estimated. That would boost the average U.S. customer's monthly electricity bill by up to $1.
It's difficult predicting to what extent utilities will pass on costs to consumers, said Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute (search), a lobby group for power companies.
"It likely will be very company-specific and may vary by region," he said. "Whatever the eventual cost may be for individual customers, one thing is certain: The requirements of the Clean Air Interstate Rule combined with the pending mercury regulation will require one of the single-largest capital expenditures on air pollution controls in U.S. history."
Still, Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air-pollution control officials, said the rule does not go far enough and tighter deadlines and stricter pollution limits are needed. "It's a good first step," he said.
The regulations set up a trading system that will let plant operators buy pollution allowances from other plants that did more than was required. It accomplishes some of what President Bush hoped to do through his top legislative priority on the environment -- giving power plants, factories and refineries more time to reduce air pollution. Bush's plan suffered a major setback Wednesday when a Republican-controlled committee rejected it in the Senate.
States affected by the new regulations are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Next week, EPA also plans to issue the nation's first regulations for mercury emissions from power plants, to comply with a court-approved agreement with an environmental group.