Mercury Pollution Cuts Won’t Harm Electricity Reliability, Congressional Research Service Confirms

The public health benefits from the mercury rule — such as fewer deaths and asthma attacks — result in benefits outweighing project costs by $14 to-$1.

by Jackie Weidman and Kendaleth VanLue

Regulating harmful mercury from power plants will not hurt the reliability of the electricity system, according to analysis from the independent Congressional Research Service.

This adds to the arsenal of research showing that Environmental Protection Agency mercury and toxic rules for power plants are unlikely to hurt the integrity of the grid. This is because most of the power plant phase-outs around the country will occur in places with sufficient reserve electricity margin, the CRS report concludes.

For the few power plants that may have legitimate issues meeting the three year deadline, EPA allows for a one-year extension, along with another one-year extension for plants where installation of pollution reduction technologies on a faster time table would interfere with generation. CRS determined that these are sufficient avenues for power plants to pursue, and “as a result, it is unlikely that electric reliability will be harmed by the rule.”


Study after study affirms similar claims, including analyses from M.J. Bradley & Associates, Charles River Associates, and the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Many utilities, including Exelon, have testified that three years is more than enough time to implement pollution control technology. Exelon — which has one of the industry’s largest electricity generation capacity portfolios — argued that 60 percent of coal-fired power plants are already equipped with pollution controls. Last September, Exelon’s Senior Vice President Joseph Dominquez called for other power providers to start acting, rather than dragging their feet:

Those companies that have done little or nothing to improve or update antiquated, inefficient plants should start planning for compliance now instead of lobbying for categorical extensions of legislative days.

For the plants that lack necessary pollution control technology, the three year deadline should be enough time to install pollution controls. Many of these companies have ample cash reserves to cushion new clean-up costs.

Contrary to industry claims, the mercury rule is unlikely to trigger spikes in electricity prices, according to CRS environmental analyst James McCarthy:

Electricity prices have declined more than 20 percent in real terms since 1980. The impact of prices changes would be relatively small compared to this downward trend, and well within the normal range of historical price fluctuations.

The reduction in mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other cancer causing pollutants from power plants would prevent an estimated 17,000 premature deaths annually, as well as avoid some 12,000 hospital visits and 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma every year. The public health improvements from the mercury rule result in benefits outweighing project costs by $14 to-$1.


The CRS report, like many others, expose false industry claims that reliability will be an issue in the implementation of EPA’s mercury rule.

The scare tactics some utilities use are designed to delay or undermine public health protections from mercury and cancer-causing chemicals. However, we are confident that the Obama administration will responsibly help those power plants with legitimate concerns about meeting generation needs while ignoring the heel-dragging from dirty companies that want to postpone cleanup as long as possible.

Jackie Weidman is a special assistant on the energy team at the Center for American Progress; Kendaleth VanLue is an intern on the energy team at CAP.