WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will unveil rules on coal-fired power plant pollution on Wednesday that aim to save billions of dollars in healthcare costs, but which opponents claim will kill jobs and threaten the reliability of the electric grid.
The Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, late on Friday, the country's first limits on emissions of the heavy metal which can harm the brains of developing fetuses and infants.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will reveal full details of the standards, which have been about 20 years in the making, at a Washington, D.C. children's hospital later on Wednesday.
The EPA rules have divided the power industry.
Companies including Exelon and NextEra that generate most of their power with "clean" fuel sources like nuclear, natural gas and renewables have supported the standards, while those that get most of their power from coal, including American Electric Power and Southern have vigorously fought the rules.
The rules are expected to stick closely to a tough proposal on mercury, arsenic, chromium and other pollutants made earlier in the year. That will likely please environmentalists and public health advocates, an important part of President Barack Obama's voter base, who slammed his move in September to delay a landmark rule on smog emissions.
The rules could offer power plants a way to apply for an extra year or so to invest in technology needed to cut the emissions. But power industry lobbyists say that is not enough.
Scott Segal, a lobbyist for power plants, said the rules will result in the loss of more than 1.4 million jobs by 2020 as utilities are forced to shutter old coal-fired power plants. He estimated that for every temporary job created in technologies to clean up power plants four higher paying jobs, often union ones, will be lost.
"The bottom line: this rule is the most expensive air rule that EPA has ever proposed in terms of direct costs," Segal said. "It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that EPA has ever attempted to implement."
The EPA estimated earlier this year that MATS will save $59 billion to $140 billion in healthcare costs by 2016 as technology to cut mercury emissions also reduces emissions of fine particulates, which can damage hearts and lungs.
The costs of the rules to utilities, it said, will be $10.9 billion in 2016.
(Reporting By Timothy Gardner; Editing by Alden Bentley)