Environmental advocates were quick to praise the Environmental Protection Agency for releasing standards to reduce mercury and other pollutants emitted by powerplants. But industry groups say the final rule, issued Dec. 21, will force the early retirement of a number of coal plants and could cause electrical reliability problems as a result.

The EPA’s mercury and air toxic standards (MATS) will require the most heavily polluting powerplants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide within the next four years. The EPA says utilities can rely on “widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired powerplants.”

The George W. Bush administration first issued standards in 2003 to reduce the emissions of mercury and other pollutants, but those standards were struck down by a federal court as being too weak.

The new standards will cover approximately 1,400 coal and oil-fired electric generation units at 600 powerplants across the United States. While many newer plants already control emission of mercury, heavy metals and acid gases, approximately 40% of the current units do have advanced pollution control equipment, EPA says.

Environmental advocates and some business groups say that the new standards are necessary to protect public health. They add that the standards are achievable, pointing to several studies, including one by the Environmental Integrity Project, that show that a number of utilities are already complying with tough requirements in states that have them.

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a non-profit advocacy group focused on sustainability, says, “The new rule will unleash investment in our nation’s infrastructure and create jobs up and down the supply chain—from manufacturing centers across the country all the way through the construction sites where high-polluting powerplants will receive long overdue upgrades or be replaced with cleaner generation.”

David Eppinger, vice president, power at Irving, Texas-based Fluor Corporation, says that “there’s no question” the new standards will create work for engineering and construction firms that work in the power sector. But he adds, “Frankly, we have some concerns about the time frame.”

The final standards announced Dec. 21 give powerplants an additional year to comply--a modification of the EPA proposal released earlier this year, which gave utilities three years. While the extra year “will help,” costs could escalate as a result of shortages of labor or materials and equipment, Eppinger says.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities that work on air issues, says that those expenses will result in an increase in the cost of power, “undermining the international competitiveness of almost two dozen manufacturing industries.” Consequently, some 1.44 million jobs could be lost by 2020, he estimates. “For every one temporary job created, four higher-paying permanent jobs are lost,” he says.

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, says that while the new standards make some “useful” technical changes from the EPA’s original proposal, “We believe the administration is underestimating the complexity of implementing this rule in such a short period of time, which can create reliability challenges and even higher costs to customers.”