Attacks Against Clean Air Keep Coming

Guest Blog | March 19, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy

They say that bad things come in threes. Recently we’ve seen three very bad ideas to attack and undermine the Clean Air Act on three of the worst categories of air pollution coming from coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuel industries.

First the pollutants: (1) mercury pollution; (2) the traditional criteria pollutants sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx); and (3) greenhouse gas pollution (the primary driver of climate change).

Over the past decades Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have worked hard to develop important safeguards and limits on each of these pollution concerns. Many of these efforts are just now coming to fruition. In December 2011 EPA issued final standards to limit toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, which are expected to generate as much as $9 in benefits for every $1 spent on compliance.  In July 2011 EPA set final standards for an SO2 and NOx emissions trading program, which will prevent as many as 34,000 premature deaths in 2014. Finally, at the beginning of 2011 new rules took effect to limit greenhouse gas pollution from the largest emitters, primarily power plants.

And here is the set of three bad ides: (1) a Congressional attempt to prevent EPA from enforcing reductions in mercury pollution; (2) a lawsuit to remove limits on SO2 and NOx; and (3) a lawsuit to destroy EPA’s efforts at slowing climate pollution.

Senator Inhofe (R-OK) is preparing to file a resolution in the United States Senate that, if passed, would undo the new mercury rule. The resolution would undercut decades of work by EPA, and would force EPA to violate the Clean Air Act, which demands that EPA establish coal plant mercury standards. The Senator and his fellow critics claim that the mercury rule will cost jobs and money. In fact, EPA estimates that the rule may create as many as 54,000 jobs and economic benefits of the rule could range from $9.2-$22.7 billion dollars in the Southeast alone!

A number of states and industry groups have sued the EPA in an effort to kill the new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which establishes a trading program for SO2 and NOx. Among their many faulty arguments, big polluters and their friends say that the rule is too expensive and gives them too little time to comply. Even major electricity generators like Excelon and Calpine Corp. know that’s just not true, having urged the court to let the new safeguards stand. The CSAPR has a flexible trading program that will allow coal plants to comply without major upgrades by purchasing emissions credits, and this system will also allow electricity generators with more foresight to actually earn money by being clean. Most importantly, of course, by reducing pollution, this rule will provide significant public benefits (up to $280 billion in monetized benefits according to EPA, to be exact) because it will reduce our sick days, hospital visits, asthma attacks, and overall healthcare costs.

Perhaps the strangest in this trio of bad ideas is a series of lawsuits against EPA for its year-old tailoring rule. The Tailoring Rule is designed to narrow the scope of new limits on greenhouse gas pollution. The Clean Air Act and a combination of administrative decisions work together to require that EPA establish ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2). A huge swath of entities in this country produce significant amounts of CO2. EPA developed the tailoring rule in an effort to make sure that their new GHG rules would not apply to hospitals, restaurants, and various other small businesses, but only to the largest emitters such as coal plants and heavy industrial facilities. In a stunning effort, opponents of any efforts to combat climate change are arguing that EPA does not have the authority to “tailor” the Clean Air Act so that it applies only to large polluters. In other words, they argue that climate pollution standards should apply even to small emitters. Their astounding logic is that if the rule applies very broadly it will create such havoc that Congress would certainly act to undo all of EPA’s climate authority.

Unfortunately, Congress is also prepared to undermine EPA’s efforts on climate, mercury and CSAPR without any nonsense lawsuits to lead the way. Many in Congress continue to ignore the fact that clean air protections are wildly popular and that the impact of air standards over the years has always lead to better health, a cleaner environment, and a more economically productive society.

While there is nothing that outside observers can do about lawsuits, here are three good things you can do to help protect the Clean Air Act: (1) Reach out to your representatives in Congress and ask that they strongly support the Clean Air Act; (2) Keep a close eye on the candidates up for office next fall and make sure that they understand the importance of clean air and the long-standing CAA benefits for human health and the environment; (3) Support SACE’s clean air efforts by becoming a member or simply by following our efforts and taking action.

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