Mercury Madness: First-Ever Mercury Limits Called “Gift to Polluters” by President Bush’s Political Opposition

BACKGROUND: The EPA this month announced a draft proposal to use a “cap and trade” model to regulate mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

The President’s political opponents immediately attacked the plan.

A “cap and trade” model would permit power plants to trade mercury “emissions credits” among themselves while limits would be placed on total mercury emissions in the U.S.

The White House said the “cap and trade” system would “cut mercury emissions by 70 percent from power plants.”1 EPA spokesman Cynthia Bergmann said December 2: “We do believe that a type of cap-and-trade approach will allow us to get greater reductions in mercury emissions at lower cost.”2

The EPA does not currently regulate mercury emissions from such plants.

The Bush EPA’s decision to impose mercury regulations via a “cap and trade” mechanism has been attacked by House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and several environmental organizations and activist groups on the political left.

Some of the criticism is harsh; much of it is misleading.

The National Resources Defense Council went so far as to insinuate that the policy is part of a secret White House policy to hurt children: “The proposal, an early Christmas gift to the Bush administration’s friends in the energy industry, speaks volumes about the administration’s unspoken policy toward America’s children.”3

The left-wing activist organization “America Coming Together,” a collection of self-described pro-choice, environmentalist and union activists, claimed on its main web page on December 8 that the proposal means “More… mercury in the water.”

Newspaper headlines implied that the Bush Administration was seeking to weaken current mercury regulations (“White House, EPA Move To Ease Mercury Rules” – Washington Post, 12/3; “EPA Retreats from Mercury Limits” – Chicago Tribune, 12/3; “EPA Moves to Weaken Mercury Emission Rules” – Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12/3; “U.S. May Rescind Rules on Mercury” – Seattle Times, 12/3; among others), although some got it right (“EPA to Offer Plan for Reducing Mercury Emissions” – USA Today, 12/2).

Dan Rather took the odd position on the CBS Evening News that the mercury regulations would not curb mercury: “The Bush administration will issue new regulations tomorrow to curb some toxic power plant emissions, such as sulfur dioxide, but not others, such as potentially dangerous mercury.”4

NBC’s David Gregory reported on the NBC Nightly news that “the EPA is preparing to undo stringent power plant regulations intended to reduce the amount of mercury pumped into the air by the nation’s 1,100 coal and oil-powered utilities.”5

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: The Clinton Administration only talked about regulating mercury emissions; the Bush Administration is acting on it.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: The EPA has never regulated mercury emissions from power plants. Those who call the Bush Administration’s decision to impose such regulations a “gift to polluters” have a strange idea of what constitutes a gift.

DISCUSSION: “Cap and trade” proposals for limiting pollution have been successfully used to reduce acid rain, and are considered a means of reducing pollution in a manner that costs less than traditional “command and control” regulatory schemes. President Clinton himself publicly suggested that “cap and trade” mechanisms to control mercury were under consideration in his Administration.6

However, in mid-December 2000, Clinton’s EPA announced support for extremely stringent “command and control” regulations on mercury, to take effect, it suggested, in 2004.

The late announcement of support for stringent anti-mercury regulations came after it was too late for the Clinton Administration to actually impose them, and after it was clear to Clinton officials that George W. Bush would be elected. This was seen by some as an effort to force the incoming Bush Administration to either impose unusually stringent regulations against or risk being accused of a health and safety “rollback.”

Politically, the strategy seems to have worked.

It is worth noting that some environmentalists have a conflict of interest in preferring “command and control” regulatory schemes. Command and control schemes provide outside interest groups, such as environmentalists, with a greater opportunity to file at times lucrative lawsuits seeking enforcement. “Cap and trade” regulatory systems provide fewer opportunities for lawsuits.

Environmentalists do not always oppose “cap and trade” proposals, however. As Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggested on Fox News’s Special Report with Brit Hume on December 3, environmental organizations have liked such proposals “in other areas when it is proposed by someone not named Bush; to not put too fine a point on it.”7

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Transcript, “Fox News: Special Report with Brit Hume,” interview of Christopher Horner, Competitive Enterprise Institute, on mercury proposals, December 3, 2003, at,03769.cfm

EPA Press Release, “New Power Plant Rule to Achieve Largest Emission Reductions in a Decade,” December 4, 2003, available at

“Nets Frame Bush Mercury Reduction Policy as ‘Gift to Polluters,'” Media Research Center CyberAlert, December 4, 2003, available at

National Resources Defense Council, “EPA’s Mercury Proposal: More Toxic Pollution for a Longer Time,” NRDC press backgrounder, December 5, 2003, available at as of December 8, 2003

Julie Rovner, Reuters, “Bush’s Mercury Cut Delay Could Endanger Newborns – Group,” December 5, 2003, as published on the left-wing website Common Dreams at

Patrick Michaels, “EPA: Shoot First, Ask Later,” Cato Institute, Mary 19, 2003, available at

by Amy Ridenour
The National Center for Public Policy Research

Contact the author at: 202-507-6398 or [email protected]
The National Center for Public Policy Research
20 F Street NW, Suite 700 Washington, D.C. 20001



1 Press Briefing by Scott McClellan, The White House, December 3, 2003, available online at as of 12/8/03

2 Darren Samuelsohn, Greenwire, EPA, OMB eye mercury trading for upcoming rule proposal, 12/2/03
3 EPA’s Mercury Proposal: More Toxic Pollution for a Longer Time, NRDC press backgrounder, December 5, 2003, available online at as of 12/8/03

4 “Nets Frame Bush Mercury Reduction Policy as ‘Gift to Polluters,'” Media Research Center CyberAlert, December 4, 2003, available at

5 “Nets Frame Bush Mercury Reduction Policy as ‘Gift to Polluters,'” Media Research Center CyberAlert, December 4, 2003, available at

6 Tom Breen, “Mercury: EPA opts for tight regulations on utility emissions,” Greenwire, December 15, 2000

7 Transcript, Fox News: Special Report with Brit Hume, interview of Chris Horner, Competitive Enterprise Institute, December 3, 2003, as posted at,03769.cfm

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