November 7, 2006

RALEIGH – New state restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants could boost your electric bill without generating any health benefits. That’s a key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

Click here to view and here to listen to Daren Bakst discussing this Spotlight report.

“Utility consumers likely will be forced to pay higher rates if the state adopts more stringent regulations than the federal government requires,” said Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst and the study’s author. “Many of these consumers never will know that they are subsidizing the utilities so they can comply with the stricter standards.”

In 2005, federal regulators issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule. It’s designed to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 70 percent. Those plants generate about 61 percent of North Carolina’s electricity.

Now North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission is looking at more stringent state standards, Bakst said. “The United States now is regulating mercury emissions from power plants for the first time,” he said. “We’re the only country in the world taking that step. For some reason, North Carolina’s appointed Environmental Management Commission is considering whether to go beyond federal requirements to restrict mercury emissions.”

Regulation of mercury emissions is designed to reduce the likelihood of fish ingesting a form of mercury called methylmercury. Regulators contend the methylmercury in fish can cause health problems for people who eat the fish. Regulators also say power plants emit mercury that turns into some of the methylmercury fish ingest.

The United States has no reported cases of mercury poisoning from fish consumption, Bakst said. He cites a leading study that demonstrates no link between health problems and methylmercury in fish.

“Regulation of mercury emissions is based on speculation, not on any known poisoning incident,” Bakst said. “There is no scientific consensus on whether methylmercury in fish has even a minor effect on humans.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is not even confident that reducing mercury emissions will have any impact on fish, Bakst said. “Despite the uncertainty, EPA still is pushing forward with its mercury regulations.”

Other important facts get lost in the debate, Bakst said. Among them: mercury emissions already have dropped by 45 percent since 1990; U.S. power plant emissions account for only 1 percent of all global emissions; power plants contribute just a fraction of the mercury deposited in the state; and regulation could benefit no more than a very small group.

“Mercury regulations, at best, would have an impact only on freshwater fish caught by recreational and subsistence fishers,” Bakst said. “And the only people who might benefit are the small numbers who eat these fish as a regular part of their diet.”

North Carolina would see no benefits from stricter standards, Bakst said. “North Carolina government officials should be angry that the federal government is imposing a mandate on the state for no justifiable reason,” he said. “Instead some policymakers and environmental groups want even more unjustifiable restrictions.

“If North Carolina goes beyond the federal regulations, it is clear that we are not an environmental leader,” he added. “North Carolina would simply be an environmental follower marching to the demands of environmental extremists.”

Daren Bakst’s Spotlight report, “Fish Tales About Mercury: Why regulation of mercury is all cost and no benefit,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].