The costs of cutting back on clean-air efforts

Following up on a campaign promise, the Trump administration has announced that it will end the “war on coal” and eliminate one of the Obama administration’s landmark pieces of climate-change legislation.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced that he wishes to rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan as quickly as possible. This proposed action follows on the announcement that the Department of Energy under Rick Perry would like to ensure that uneconomical coal and nuclear plants receive payments to remain on line, whether needed or not, and for an indefinite number of years, thus upending market-based rules in the electric power industry.

Both of these ideas, as well as the announcement that the United States would begin backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, reflect the stated aim of the administration to reject any responsibility for action on the part of the U.S. to join with most other countries to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s set the standards for environmental protection during the past several decades. One of the standard practices used by the federal government has been cost-benefit analysis, as a check on unreasonably expensive regulations. In fact, environmental rules have often been found to be much cheaper to implement than expected. Later, market-based solutions to sulfur emissions from power plants were created at the behest of Congress as a more efficient means of cutting pollution; these regulations have been largely successful, and again, at lower costs than initially anticipated.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that the EPA has the duty to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. How to do so is open to the legislative and executive branches, but the requirement remains even if the Clean Power Plan is rescinded — the Clean Power Plan is an imperfect attempt to comply with this so-called “endangerment finding.” For years, Congress (primarily, but not only, Democrats) has tried to gain traction for market-based solutions to controlling carbon dioxide emissions.

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.

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