The costs and benefits of EPA’s new rules on coal

Photo by Nick Humphries, via Flickr Creative Commons

The AP’s Dina Cappiello has an excellent piece out today on the impact of a controversial new EPA rule on air pollution. Here’s her lede:

WASHINGTON—More than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will be forced to shut down and an additional 36 might have to close because of new federal air pollution regulations, according to an Associated Press survey.

Together, those plants — some of the oldest and dirtiest in the country — produce enough electricity for more than 22 million households, the AP survey found. But their demise probably won’t cause homes to go dark.

The fallout will be most acute for the towns where power plant smokestacks long have cast a shadow. Tax revenues and jobs will be lost, and investments in new power plants and pollution controls probably will raise electric bills.

Backers of Big Coal have long-protested similar clean-up rules, predicting economic ruin and widespread blackouts. A new rule to clean-up dirty coal? Cue the horsemen of the Apocalypse. But, as Cappiello’s investigation found, the consequences won’t be quite so dire. There are losers and winners, to be sure. But a full cost-accounting shows that these EPA regulations generally save lives and have a net economic benefit to boot. Just a few years ago, for example, as many as 30,000 Americans died prematurely every year because of particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants. In 2010, thanks to new EPA rules, that number had been reduced to slightly over 13,000.

The EPA says that the new rule would save thousands more lives annually and it would prevent, in 2016,

  • 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis,
  • 11,000 nonfatal heart attacks,
  • 12,200 ER visits,
  • 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis,
  • 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma.

Yes, the new rule costs money. The EPA puts the price tag at nearly $11 billion in 2016. On the other hand, the health benefits from the new rule are estimated at between $59-$140 billion for 2016 — or somewhere between five and twelve times greater than the costs of the rule.

For years, opponents of “big government” and regulatory policies have relied on framing the issue as a choice between the environment and the economy. It’s a false choice, as the evidence shows. What’s good for the environment is, in this case and in many others, good for the economy.



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