The Obama administration’s efforts to reduce mercury pollution from coal plants has become one of its most contentious undertakings. But Minnesota’s regulatory officials are saying that they may have found the key -- one that has built consensus and that could become a national model.

Minnesota says that it has cut its mercury emissions by more than half since the state had mandated that utilities operating within its borders abide by its rules. In the mid 1990s, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says that mercury emissions from coal plants totaled 1,850 pounds per year. Today, they are about 870 pounds. By 2016, they will be about 200 pounds.

“Mercury emissions from this sector are now at less than half of where we started a little mover a decade ago,” says John Stine, commissioner at the agency. “And our power utilities are well ahead of their scheduled reductions laid out in the Minnesota Reductions Act of 2006.” He goes on to say that 90 percent of the mercury that ends up in the state’s air and water comes from elsewhere.

The subject of mercury has become a rallying cry for both the industrial and environmental movements. No argument exists that the insidious nature of the pollutant is deleterious and harmful. The two sides diverge, however, over the methods to reduce that release, with greenies supporting the White House’s current mandatory efforts while coal-fired utilities are saying that such moves are too aggressive and that they need more time to comply.

The Obama administration says that it is following court orders by enacting rules to cut mercury pollution. On December 21, 2011, its Environmental Protection Agency acted to fulfill its obligation under the 1990 Clean Act and had demanded that coal-fired power plants implement the best available technologies to reduce their mercury emissions by 90 percent. 

The regulations are not a shock to most utilities, which have already taken the steps to implement the necessary tools to make such reductions. And, according to EPA, of the roughly 1,400 coal-and-oil-fired power plants, 60 percent have acted while 40 percent, or 600, have not. Of those, it estimates that about 1 percent will choose to shut down their operations as opposed to clean up.

Flexibility Requests

Critics of the mandatory approach to reducing mercury levels say that the technologies to make huge cuts are not yet commercialized. They favor a voluntary method -- one offered by the Bush administration and one it had enacted in 2006 -- that uses a cap-and-trade system. They say that such a pliable process would have reduced mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018.

Southern Company, which is spending $6 billion over 10 years to reduce mercury emissions, is one such utility that prefers flexibility.

“There are significant technical flaws in the way the (mercury) standards were set,” says Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. “The (mercury) rule is one of the most expensive rules in Clean Air Act history and is widely anticipated to cost some $300 billion and 2-2.5 million full time jobs.” 

The administration has said that it will revisit its ruling, although it adds that any changes would only affect those coal facilities that are now in the planning or construction phases -- of which there are only about five. The White House disputes the coal lobby’s figures, saying that the regs are preventing future illnesses and creating 1.4 million new jobs.

As for Minnesota, it says that it has achieved results because it has been able to bring all sides to the table. While the state law took effect in 2006, its efforts to minimize mercury began before that -- with Xcel Energy converting older coal plants to combined cycle natural gas facilities and by using modern technologies. State authorities are also giving credit to Minnesota Power and Rochester Public Utilities for installing mercury controls at its plants.

Future action is promising: The Government Accountability Office has determined that "activated carbon injections" have the potential to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent -- at an average price of $3.6 million per plant.

Meantime, the U.S. Department of Energy says that the cost of removing such pollutants was $60,000 per pound in 1999 but that figure is $10,000 per pound today.

Policymakers and utilities are under pressure to act, which has helped foster the development of compelling technologies. Modern generating facilities can limit mercury emissions but the older plants that are far less efficient are the ones with the most problems. Such advances have pushed at least 21 states to require their utilities to make 90 percent reductions in mercury in accelerated time frames.

Minnesota is achieving results. And it is saying that its methods could become a national model.