For the first time, the U.S. government is preparing to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Part of the administration’s proposal is to use a market-based approach, called “cap-and-trade.” People in the energy business say “cap-and-trade” programs are proven tools to protect the environment at a lower cost. But some critics say a pollutant as toxic as mercury should have a more traditional and tougher regulatory program. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
For the first time, the U.S. government is preparing to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired
power plants. Part of the administration’s proposal is to use a market-based approach, called “cap-
and-trade.” People in the energy business say “cap-and-trade” programs are proven tools to protect
the environment at a lower cost. But some critics say a pollutant as toxic as mercury should have a
more traditional and tougher regulatory program. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner
Thirty-four years ago, the nation saw its first fish consumption advisory. The state of Michigan
warned people not to eat too much fish from Lake St. Clair, which sits between lakes Huron and
Erie, not too far from Detroit. Michigan environmental officials discovered high levels of mercury
in many kinds of fish. Dow Chemical was dumping 200 to a thousand pounds of mercury a day
through a pipe straight into the St. Clair River.
John Hesse worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources back them. Hesse and his
colleagues found that people who ate fish from the lake twice a week or more had unsafe levels of
mercury in their system.
Hesse says in the U.S., the biggest mercury danger is to unborn babies whose mothers eat
“In children exposed at an early stage, they have a slower developmental pattern, onset of
walking might be affected, learning disabilities. It might be very subtle, but still affecting the
The government has stopped a lot of that kind of pollution. But, mercury is still a big problem.
Today, coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution. The Bush
administration is calling for a cap-and-trade program to regulate mercury emissions.
Here’s how cap-and-trade works. The “cap” part sets national goals for reducing pollution and it
doles out pollution credits to each power plant based on those goals.
The “trade” part of cap-and-trade lets industries buy, sell or bank pollution credits to stay under
federal limits. It’s a lot like trading commodities in the markets. For example, a company that
pollutes over the limit can buy credits from companies that pollute less. Every plant might not
become cleaner, but nationwide mercury pollution would still be reduced.
Such a program’s been in place since 1990 for sulfur dioxide, a main component of acid rain.
Ohio-based American Electric Power is the biggest player in the sulfur dioxide trading game. The
company’s Dale Heydlauff says emissions trading is good for industry and for the environment.
“There was actually an incentive for utilities to, very early in the program, overcomply –
reduce emissions more than the law required, bank those allowances or those credits and
then trade them either with other facilities within your own company, or with external
parties whose cost of control is higher.”
In fact, sulfur dioxide emissions trading has saved American Electric Power 20- to 30-percent of
what it would cost to retro-fit all of its plants.
Heydlauff and others in the energy business say the EPA’s cap-and-trade plan is the right way to
deal with mercury, too. They say it’s better than traditional programs that demand expensive
upgrades on every plant. Heydlauff says there’s no proven technology to reduce mercury
emissions that will work everywhere.
“So what the trading system does for mercury, is it allows us to innovate. It allows us to
achieve the environmental requirement at a lower cost, but also through a variety of
There’s one major difference between a cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide and mercury –
mercury is toxic to people. Environmentalists and people who’ve studied mercury say there’s more
at stake here than just economic costs.
David Gard is with the Michigan Environmental Council. He says there is technology available
today to cut mercury emissions. Gard says municipal and medical waste incinerators have used it
to cut mercury pollution by 90 percent. But Gard says power companies won’t embrace that
because installing the equipment would cost more money. Gard calls the Bush administration’s less
restrictive cap-and-trade programs a gift to the energy industry.
“The percentage reductions that they’re proposing are well below what we know available
technology and near-term technology can deliver. And also, for one of their proposals, it
would delay reductions by almost a full decade, out to 2018, when really, we should be
expecting major reductions from these sources by 2010.”
Gard also worries that a cap-and-trade program could worsen mercury hot spots – places where
contamination is more concentrated. He says under cap-and-trade, companies could pick and
choose which plants in their system to upgrade. Gard says that could leave some communities with
dirty air and big health concerns.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.