The States of West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming recently filed a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that its proposal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants overstepped the agency’s mandate and exceeded its authority. The States’ underlining contention is that regulating emissions from coal plants will devastate their economies, drive electricity rates through the roof and result in flight of businesses and loss of jobs. The ridiculousness of their lawsuit is underscored by the fact that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the EPA has authority, for the most part, to regulate greenhouse gases. The contention that their economies will be ruined and multitudes thrown out of work is specious at best and myopic in its view of the long-term impacts of EPA regulator reach. The EPA’s prime directive is to protect the environment. The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that greenhouse gases are detrimental to the environment.
Such claims are reminiscent of the auto industry’s baseless arguments against the Federal mandating of various safety technologies and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles. The industry vocally contended that forcing it to meet such standards would cause industry-wide devastation and doom. During the push to mandate safety belts in all cars, one auto industry research organization predicted an increase in deaths resulting from their use. The U.S. automotive industry has a long history of fighting safety and emission standards and technologies. Seat belts, turn signals, radial tires, disk brakes, and air bags have all come under attack by the industry. In the mid 1960s, when the automotive industry began to come under scrutiny by the government with threats of regulation, and crusaders such as Ralph Nader questioned the industry’s commitment to safety, the industry fought back. In 1966, Henry Ford II complained that the new auto safety standards were “unreasonable, arbitrary and technically unfeasible….if we can’t meet them when they are published we’ll have to close down.” Ironically, in 1977, Ford conceded in a Meet the Press interview, “We wouldn’t have the kinds of safety built into automobiles that we have had unless there had been a federal law.” Other industry experts claimed that the government’s attempt to regulate auto emissions was based upon fraudulent science as to the harmful effects of smog. Others claimed that higher CAFE standards would limit consumer choice and require smaller vehicles which would result in less safe autos. Josephine Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an auto industry trade group that represents the Big Three and a number of major foreign automakers, in response to the CAFE hikes being considered by NHTSA in 2002 and 2003, opined, “…This proposal threatens jobs, the economy and family vehicles such as SUVs and minivans, and it represents a ban on light trucks.” This prediction of the troubles for the Big Three auto manufacturers was somewhat prescient, but not for the reasons she predicted. Rather, it was more their arrogance and failure to anticipate the market. As gas prices at the pump increased, people began to look for more efficient vehicles, trading in their old gas guzzlers for more efficient vehicles. Improved efficiency and safety features have given the consumer a reason to replace their old cars. And, to the surprise of the industry, they figured out how to meet the CAFE standards while increasing autos’ performance. In 1975, the average 0 to 60 mph time for an auto was 14.1 seconds and traveled 18 mpg. In 2010, 0 to 60 mph had dropped to 9.5 seconds, averaging 27.5 mpg.
But I digress. The coal industry’s claim of doom should the EPA’s proposal go into effect may indeed be prescient, especially if they fail to innovate. Coal’s failure to admit and/or address its adverse environmental effects has weakened the industry, possibly to the point of no return. And if there are better sources of energy than coal for generating electricity, maybe coal should be phased out. Why protect an industry that cannot convincingly demonstrate its beneficial aspects to society? Using data from the U.S. Department of Energy / Energy Information Administration, the National Mining Association published a document stating that the industry in 2012 employed under 90,000 people nationwide. In contrast, the solar industry employs in excess of 143,000 and the U.S. wind industry 80,000. The biomass and geothermal sectors might add another 80,000 employees to these employment figures. These are nascent industries that are growing annually at rates of 10 to 20%, whereas the coal industry employment numbers are stagnant or even falling. For all these States to support an industry simply because it employs people, not taking into consideration the lack of future opportunities and health impacts the industry appears to be offering its constituency, is living with and making decisions with blinders on.
It is estimated that over 1,500 miners per year die of black lung disease. As early as the 1950s, black lung was a recognized disease among coal miners and the industry. It was not until 1969 that legislation was finally enacted to address this debilitating disease and its underlying causes. Though mine safety has improved, miners are still plagued with this disease. It would behoove a State to look for and assist its populace in finding alternative jobs to working in the coal industry. West Virginia has the lowest percentage of people with college degrees in the Nation, and Kentucky isn’t far behind. There appears to be little future in coal, for either the coal miner or the States that are reliant upon it. A State that isn’t planning for future markets and industries is doing a disservice to its populace, and an industry that attempts to scare the populace with dire forecasts of doom and gloom that will result from regulating it for the good of society needs to find a better argument. Electricity may be relatively inexpensive in the twelve States that filed the lawsuit against the EPA, but I know that the environmental and health cost impacts are not factored into their rate pricing by their respective Public Utilities Commissions. It is downwind neighbors that also suffer, their health, their economies, and their quality of life.
In considering the current attack on EPA’s proposal to limit coal plant emissions, it is useful to reflect upon the acid rain problem of the 1980s. Acid rain was such a major problem thirty years ago that acidity levels in lakes in the Adirondacks were, in many cases, too high to support fish habitat, and huge swaths of pine forests were dying. With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990, and EPA’s 1995 program to reduce acid rain, sulfur dioxides (So2) levels from power plants were reduced by over 40% by 2006 from 1980 levels. Power plants were forced to install scrubber, and to upgrade and modernize facilities. Many utilities and States fought these changes with the same sort of fear-mongering tactics that they are attempting to use now. The doom and gloom to industry, utilities, and coal miners never seemed to materialize. The improvement to air quality throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, did. It is quantifiable, from both health and economic standpoints, with improved water qualities, healthier forests, and reduced deterioration of buildings and infrastructure. Acidity levels in the Adirondack lakes decreased to the point where fish once again now flourish.
The States that have made decisions to phase out the use of coal for generating electrical power are, in essence, subsidizing those that refuse to. Those States that have mandated that their utility companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions have inevitably forced them to incur additional capital expenditures to upgrade power plants. They have allowed them to recover these costs through their rate base, sometimes increasing the cost of electrical energy to their customers. These costs have, time and time again, proved to be minor when weighed against the societal benefits. Those States that have not mandated that their utilities reduce greenhouse gases are saddling those who have with the cost of improving the environment and meeting the U.S.’s targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Do we need repeats of smog levels that occurred in 1952 in London that killed between 4,000 to 6,000 people to wake us up? Even China has realized that phasing out coal as a source of energy for heating and generating electricity is a necessity, recently announcing that by 2020 it will cease burning coal in six of the districts surrounding Beijing. Even if one questions the science around climate change and coal’s impact, an argument for phasing out the use of coal based upon health and smog issues is irrefutable.
The lawsuit is a delay tactic at best and political posturing. Prior rulings by lower courts as to EPA’s authority, and the Supreme Court’s ruling, which was a 6/2 decision, with conservatives joining liberals, should have put to rest the question as to whether the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, regardless of whether it is from industry or utilities.