Wednesday, March 01, 2006

COLUMN -- State can cut mercury emissions, but let's be honest about the cost

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:23 AM |  

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

It's not cheap. It's not easy. Proposed legislation requiring a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants can't defy the laws of physics.

The goal is achievable and the benefits do outweigh costs — but there are economic and social costs to consider. To claim otherwise just isn't true.

I am not a big fan of government agencies, but with each visit to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the impression grows that here is a state agency that works. The paradigm of environmental protection has changed, Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan explained last week. Sound environmental policy requires integrating economic, social and environmental sciences.

Applying that approach is working. Minnesota is one of only 11 states and the Twin Cities one of only three major metropolitan areas to attain all federal air quality standards. Mercury emissions have been reduced from 11,272 pounds in 1990 to 3,341 in 2005, a 70 percent reduction. But there is still work to do. Since 1990 mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants have increased from 1,518 pounds to 1,738 pounds — but not, as critics claim, because the energy industry has not been doing its part.

Since 1985 Minnesota's population has increased 21 percent, energy consumption has increased 41 percent and the Gross State Product is up 69 percent. As population grows, as our standard of living increases, so does the demand for electricity, causing power plants to burn more coal, release more mercury.

That does not make reducing mercury emissions impossible. However, reduction comes at a cost. One cannot simply hide costs behind an objective. To understand the cost, one must understand the difficulty of the objective.

When one looks at MPCA mercury emissions projections for 2009, it's immediately apparent that two facilities, Xcel's SHERCO plant and Minnesota Power's Boswell facility, have five generating units producing most of the predicted volume of mercury emissions. Delving a little deeper, one finds that four of the five units use a wet scrubber system to prevent the emission of sulfur dioxide. While extremely effective at removing sulfur dioxide, wet scrub technology is not very good at removing mercury. Nor is it easily and cheaply adapted to do so.

State Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield, a co-sponsor of the 90 percent legislation, takes a policy-maker's stand on that point. Noting the challenge, he crosses his fingers, tosses the burden of implementation over the wall and hopes for a miracle.

"I am very confident America's great engineering and technology will quickly devise a plan that works for the utility and the ratepayer and will clean up the air for us all," he writes on his blog.

Ratepayers eventually foot the bill for upgrading power plants, and "cost" is not just measured in dollars. There are social consequences to environmental policies. Some people won't be able to pay higher prices for energy. However, one can trust that there will be legislators ready to "solve" that problem with a mandate. Of course, implementation will be up to somebody else.

But what about the benefits promised by Cox and co-author Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis?

Since 1990, the mercury level in fish has decreased by 10 percent and the MPCA expects that trend to continue. However, more than 90 percent of the mercury deposited in Minnesota lakes is generated outside Minnesota. Even if every last ounce of mercury emission is eliminated in Minnesota, fish advisories will still be in effect, and Minnesota will still have lakes on the list of Impaired Waters.

One final point on benefits: I am an outspoken advocate of the plausible connection between mercury, specifically as used in vaccines, and neurological damage in children. Nonetheless, I am angered when Cox and Dibble claim that their legislation will significantly reduce the number of children suffering learning disabilities caused by mercury exposure ("Detoxify Minnesota from Mercury" Feb. 16.). They overstate the impact of environmental mercury. Their conclusion exceeds scientific research and damages credibility for the larger vaccine issue. Their action is a deplorable scare tactic.

None of the preceding is an argument against reducing mercury emissions with or without the Dibble-Cox legislation.

It is an argument in favor of the MPCA model of formulating environmental policy in the context of economic, social and environmental science. It is an argument against a politically motivated command-and-control approach to environmental protection that ignores the economic and social costs of policy decisions and overstates benefits.