WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats blocked a Republican-backed move Wednesday to scrap EPA regulations on mercury and toxic chemical emissions from coal power plants, unswayed by the contention that the rules are killing jobs, not saving lives.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., failed, 53-46.
Picking an election-year fight over the wisdom of instituting new environmental regulations in a weak economy, Republicans argued the rules will force older power plants to close, putting people out of jobs, and will drive up the cost of electricity.
Inhofe warned senators that by voting against his measure, “you are effectively killing coal in America.”
Opponents said the regulations will improve the health of hundreds of thousands of Americans made ill by toxic chemicals spewed by coal-fired plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the rules will prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year.
When the regulations were announced last December, environmental groups praised them as a historic step more than two decades in the making.
Congress ordered the EPA to regulate the chemicals as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act, but delays and a Bush administration U-turn meant mercury and other toxins from coal plants were not controlled until the rules were announced last year.
There was little chance that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, would be repealed. Even if the measure had also passed the House, the administration had threatened to veto it. But the vote allowed senators to capitalize on the issue ahead of this fall’s elections.
Some Democrats from energy-producing states voted for the measure. But New England Republicans, whose states do not use much coal and are in the path of airborne chemicals from Midwestern plants, voted against it.
Power companies have four years to meet the rules, which the EPA estimated will cost the industry almost $10 billion a year. But the agency also estimated the regulations will save between three and nine times that amount as a result of better health. The EPA also estimated that while some jobs could be lost as plants closed, others will be created installing the required equipment.
The rules require all coal plants to meet the same standards as the cleanest coal plants now operating. The EPA estimates they will cut mercury emissions by 90 percent and acid gases by 88 percent.