Smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station in Colstrip, Mont., on July 1, 2013. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants like the Colstrip Steam Electric Station. The plant, which employs 388 people, emits an estimated 17 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. / Matt Brown AP
As the Obama administration readies its proposal for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, new research says strong rules could offer health benefits by reducing air pollutants.
Tough carbon rules could reduce the risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma and other health problems by limiting pollutants that contribute to soot, acid rain and ozone, according to a study Tuesday by researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities.
"They would have significant health and ecosystem benefits," says lead author Charles Driscoll, an engineering professor at Syracuse, noting they could result in less ozone damage to crops and toxic mercury in fish. He says when power plants limit carbon emissions, they release less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulate matter.
Slated to be announced June 2, the controversial rules will be a key component of President Obama's plan to fight climate change, since power plants account for a hefty share of the nation's heat-trapping carbon emissions.
Opponents, including business groups and Republicans, say the Environmental Protection Agency rules amount to "a war on coal" by making it difficult for coal-fired plants to remain economically competitive. These plants, which supply 39% of U.S electricity, emit more CO2 than do those powered by oil or natural gas.
On Wednesday, the Chamber of Commerce plans to release a report warning that the EPA rules could negatively impact jobs and cause higher electricity prices.
Since the rules' details are not yet available, the Syracuse/Harvard study looks at three possible rule options and compares their likely impact to the status quo. Driscoll says weak rules would yield few health benefits.
In contrast, emission reductions of 27% for sulfur dioxide and mercury and 22% for nitrogen oxide could result from rules proposed by environmentalists. These rules would, compared to current policy, require a 24% cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 but give states flexibility in achieving the reductions.
"This is an opportunity to both mitigate climate change and protect public health," says co-author Jonathan Buonocore of the Harvard School of Public Health. The study says all states would benefit, especially those in and near the Ohio River Valley and the Rocky Mountain region.
In recent public speeches, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the rules, which will likely encounter legal challenges, will give states and utilities flexibility in how they meet the new limits.
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