WASHINGTON – Clean up or shut down.
That's the decision facing hundreds of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants under an Environmental Protection Agency rule announced Wednesday that will force plants to control mercury and other toxic pollutants for the first time.
The long awaited national standards rein in the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic pollution in the U.S. -- the emissions from the nation's coal- and oil-fired power plants, which have been allowed to run for decades without addressing their full environmental and public health costs.
The impact of the ruling will be greatest in the Midwest and in the coal belt -- Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia -- where dozens of units likely will be mothballed, according to an Associated Press survey. The majority of facilities will continue to run, and find ways to reduce pollution.
About half of the 1,200 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the EPA in 1990 getting the authority from Congress to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks. A decade later, in 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on the emissions to protect public health.
At a news conference Wednesday at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the regulation was the Obama administration's "biggest clean air action yet", trumping a landmark agreement to double fuel economy standards for vehicles and another rule that will reduce emissions from power plants that foul the air in states downwind.
The administration was under court order to issue a new rule, after a court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from toxic air pollution controls.
"Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases that power plants across the country could release into the air that we breathe," said Jackson, listing the contaminants linked to cancer, IQ loss, heart disease and lung disease that are covered by the rule, and that also pollute lakes, streams and fish.
In a video released Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama said the decades of delays caused by special interest groups that resulted in standards never being put into place for power plants "was wrong."
"Today, my administration is saying, 'Enough'," he said.
When fully implemented in 2016, the standards will slash mercury pollution from burning coal by 90 percent, lung-damaging acid gases by 88 percent and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent.
Power plant operators will have to choose between installing pollution control equipment, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shutting down the plant. None of those choices come cheap -- the EPA estimates the rule will cost $9.6 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive the agency has ever issued.
Some power producers intensely lobbied the Obama administration to weaken the rule and to delay it, and Republicans in Congress passed legislation to do so, saying it would threaten jobs and the reliability of the power grid, and raise electricity prices.
To ease those concerns, the administration will encourage states to make "broadly available" an additional fourth year to comply with the rule, as allowed by the law. Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues, according to a presidential memorandum sent Wednesday to Jackson.
In the memorandum, Obama directs the EPA to ensure that implementation of the rule "proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability."
Environmentalists said Wednesday that the added flexibility did not jeopardize the public health benefits of the regulation.
"After more than two decades of delay, dirty coal-fired power plants are going to be cleaned up in short order," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, who said the EPA "bent over backwards" to accommodate concerns about reliability.
For those in the industry, and some in Congress, the concessions didn't go far enough.
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate's environment committee, said he would file a joint resolution, a rarely used Congressional tactic, to get the rule overturned.
Some in the industry pushed for an automatic delay, or "safety valve," to make sure that plants that have to run to ensure reliability aren't found in violation of the rule and too many plants don't close down at once. In addition to those that will retire, hundreds of units will need to be idled temporarily to install pollution control equipment. Some of those units are at critical junctions on the grid and are essential to restarting the electrical network in case of a blackout, or making sure voltage doesn't drain completely from electrical lines, like a hose that's lost its water pressure.
The Edison Electric Institute, whose members were split on the toll of the rule, said in a statement Wednesday that while the EPA "made useful technical changes", it believes "the administration is underestimating the complexity of implementing this rule in such a short period of time."
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is an association of companies producing electricity from coal, said the rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and make electricity less reliable. A study by the group estimated that as much as 12 percent of coal-fired generation would be forced to retire due to the regulation.
But an AP survey of 55 power plant producers found that estimate, and others, to be inflated. The mercury rule, along with another to reduce power plant pollution that blows downwind, will force portions of more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states to retire, and put another 36 power plants on the brink of retirement.
But not a single operator interviewed said the EPA was solely to blame for the decision. And coal is still likely to be the country's dominant electricity source until 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration.
For the older, aging plants, many of which only ran when electricity demand peaked, the rules were the final blow. Coal was already struggling to compete against low natural-gas prices, demand from China and elsewhere driving up its price, and lower electricity demand.
The average age of the units retiring or at risk of shutting down was 51 years old, the AP found. And while they produce enough power for more than 22 million households, experts say they probably won't cause the lights to go out, because in many cases the power is being replaced.