U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   07/29/2003
Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas
Climate history, science, and mercury emissions

Mr. Chairman, I commend you for holding this important hearing examining what is known about the science of climate change, mercury and the potential health effects of mercury emissions from power plants.

Given the timing of the energy debate on the Floor and this Committee’s ongoing consideration of the Clear Skies Act, this is a very timely and important topic and I commend the Chairman for setting time aside to focus on the issue. I realize our focus today in regards to climate change is on the science, principally on temperature change. Two very different trains of thought are about to be presented to us today and I think this is positive and encourages a good, healthy debate. The question that this panel has to wrestle with is moving ahead with a greenhouse gas policy that may or may not be based on sound science. I am concerned about the costs in moving forward when there is a large body of science out there that says there isn’t a problem.

To shift our focus just a bit, an issue of particular concern to me is the available technology to control greenhouse gas emissions, specifically CO2. I am fairly certain that some of my colleagues agree with the line of thought about to be outlined by Dr. Mann, and this could very well lead this committee to a debate imposing mandatory controls on CO2. If this turns out to be the case it is imperative that this Committee determine whether or not the technology is currently available to accomplish CO2 reductions that are effective enough to solve the “problems” thought to be faced. I realize this is a topic for another hearing, but one that causes me concern.

In regards to mercury, in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress specifically requested that EPA conduct an analysis of the health effects of mercury emissions from power plants and report back. EPA did conduct that study in 1997 and concluded that there was a “plausible link” between mercury emission and potential health effects, but was unable to quantify the link.

Six years have passed since EPA’s 1997 study. Unfortunately, we still have not received any clarification from the EPA as to the magnitude of the health risks posed by power plant emissions, even though we are currently on the verge of spending billions of dollars to reduce those emissions.

I suspect that one of the reasons for this lack of information is that we are dealing with a global problem. Many people today may find it surprising to learn that most of the mercury that is deposited in the United States originates from outside our borders. In fact, for most of the country, over 60-80 percent of the mercury deposited in the United States comes from emission sources located in another country. Additionally, natural sources of mercury, such as forest fires and vegetation burning, account for over half of the world’s mercury emissions.

What this means is that we have control over only a very small portion of total mercury emissions. Of the 5500 tons of mercury emitted globally, the U.S. accounts for only about 155 tons, or three percent of global emissions. U.S. power plant emissions which are estimated to be 48 tons per year, represent less than one percent of total global emissions. Given how small this fraction is, it both reasonable and prudent to ask what impact controls on power plants will have on actual public health.

While EPA has unfortunately not provided us with any data on that question as of yet, Leonard Levin from the Electric Power Industry has. According to his very detailed analysis, control programs to reduce mercury emissions from power plants are likely to have less than a one percent impact on public exposure in this country. In fact, he estimates an impact of less than 0.3 percent. I do not know if this number is correct, but I think his very detailed analysis deserves comment from EPA, especially given that this was exactly the kind of information Congress sought in 1990 when it amended the Act.

I look forward to hearing Dr. Levin’s testimony , as well as Dr. Rice’s and Dr. Myers’. Your collective input is critical to this committee as we continue to debate the Clear Skies initiative.

I yield back the balance of my time.