Economists say that costs incurred by society due to the actions of others should be included as best we can in the market. That is exactly what was developed for sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, legislation to incorporate estimated costs to society of climate change into energy prices have failed, due in part to a denial by some legislators of the overwhelmingly agreed-upon science that climate change is indeed real and primarily caused by human actions.
The Obama administration EPA did weigh costs and benefits of the Clean Power Plan. There will always be uncertainty in such estimates, but it is clear from the EPA analysis that the benefits, even without counting climate change impacts, outweigh the costs of implementation, because coal electricity results in so many other pollutants that have negative health effects. Taking into account even a conservative estimate of climate change damages makes the case for regulation even stronger. Few would claim that the Clean Power Plan is the ideal tool to achieve the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by setting limits for power plants that effectively would inhibit building new coal-fired power plants. The Obama administration finally chose this path because there was a confirmed obligation for the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions, but no action forthcoming from the legislative branch to do so.
Although Scott Pruitt declared that rescinding the Clean Power Plan would mean the end of the so-called “war on coal,” the real reasons for the decline of coal-mining jobs has been increasing mechanization over the past several decades, as was recognized by Mitch McConnell’s admission that elimination of the Clean Power Plan would not bring back most coal jobs. Decreasing need for coal-fired electricity has mainly been because of cheap natural gas – market competition in which very old and inefficient coal plants are losing out.
Ironically, one of the reasons given by Mr. Pruitt for rejecting the Clean Power Plan was that it allowed too much flexibility in determining how to reduce CO2 emissions – utilities were able to essentially offset high-emission coal plants with wind farms or other measures taken within their portfolio. The current EPA argues that emissions reductions should only be made “within the fence” of the individual power plants. Unfortunately, it is physically impossible to make sharp reductions in a coal-fired power plant’s emissions to the levels needed.
Plenty of areas in the U.S. are already experiencing the effects of climate change, such as extended droughts, wildfires, more intense hurricanes, sea-level rise and intense precipitation events – all of which are made worse by changing climate conditions. With those costs already adding up today, it is hard to make a convincing argument that reducing emissions from the power system would be a bad investment for the future.
Bob Brecha is a professor of physics and renewable and clean energy at the University of Dayton,and is research director at the Hanley Sustainability Institute.