Why is there a visibility rule in the first place? As the EPA’s website explains, the rule was necessary because “visual range has decreased from 140 miles to 35–90 miles” in the West, meaning that “many visitors aren’t able to see the spectacular vistas they expect.” This is pretty rich to those living in the West, whose “spectacular vistas” are more likely to be obstructed by wildfires of natural origin than by man’s emissions. Does a norm that the EPA has proclaimed cease to be meaningful if Mother Nature routinely negates it?
The rule neatly demarcates what’s important to the EPA, with “spectacular vistas” on one side and, on the other, the usual culprit: manufacturing and power plants, in this case those that emit particulate matter that blows willy-nilly into parklands. On balance, one would think — one would hope — this would be a clear victory for what is called in EPA parlance “the emitter.” But don’t hold your breath. Rather than treating matters like this as a balancing act of environment versus economy, the rote assertion of green-jobs ideology has become that the environment is the economy. That a generator or engine or boiler will always be to some degree at odds with nature seems a concept lost on this administration. The EPA is scheduled to take action this or next year to force recalcitrant states into compliance with the Visibility Rule.
An even more harmful rule that is ripe for revision and delay is the mercury regulation effected by the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards. This, at least, is a rule intended to mitigate a real pollutant, and is in part being implemented by federal court order. But the Utility MACT is overzealous. Modern coal-burning technology produces a small amount of mercury. If you filled up the Astrodome with 30 billion ping-pong balls, representing the parts emitted when low-sulfur subbituminous coal is burned, and painted black those balls that represented mercury, then you would have only 27 black balls. Many states have already adopted stringent controls, so that, at Montana’s large Colstrip facility, which hosts four power plants that supply the northwestern United States, you would have only three black ping-pong balls. Put in a more scientific way, the cleaner varieties of coal produce less than one pound of mercury for every trillion BTUs. At this rate of occurrence, it is difficult even to measure mercury emissions — let alone control them. Yet the EPA says it will finalize the rule by the middle of December.
The EPA is also steaming ahead with the Coal Combustion Residuals rule, another pillar of the agency’s regulatory overkill. This rule has been written and awaiting the EPA go-ahead for a year. It threatens to treat the ash produced when coal is burned as a hazardous material that may be deposited only in certified hazmat landfills. Coal ash does not meet any existing EPA definition of a hazardous material, and hazmat landfills are in short supply (and in some coal-burning states, such as Montana, they are nonexistent). Coal plants produce a lot of ash — 10 million tons of coal produce 1 million tons of ash when burned. If ash is to be treated as a hazardous waste on par with battery acid, there is simply no way coal plants, which still account for half of America’s electrical generation, can remain online. The rule was issued this spring, but Obama, if he chose to, could save ratepayers billions by withholding final approval.