The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced historic new rules that will cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Amazingly, the country’s 1,600 power plants together account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. Of these, there are still some 600 coal-powered plants running. And aging coal plants (their average age is 42) account for a disproportionate share of total emissions from the power sector. The EPA, which is acting through its authority under the Clean Air Act, will now open the rules for public comment. Once that process is complete, they intend to give states flexibility to act. The New York Times says President Obama’s new rules are one of the “strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change.”
States will be given some leeway to design their own programs to cut emissions. “Rather than immediately shutting down coal plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, and by starting or joining state and regional ‘cap and trade’ programs, in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and buy and sell permits to pollute.” This is a sensible approach as the energy mix varies widely state by state, with some states naturals for some types of renewable energy, but others not.
Environmental groups cheer the new regulations, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report stating the rules could lower the gross domestic product by $50 billion annually. Nobel Prize winning-economist Paul Krugman took apart that report in a recent op-ed. Krugman writes: “So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!”
While the debate over economic costs and benefits — particularly for coal-producing states — will continue, it’s becoming clear the regulations may boost the health of Americans. In fact, President Obama made a point of calling the American Lung Association while new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced the new effort. The Obama administration argues that in its first year the new limits will cut the number of asthma attacks by 100,000 and heart attacks by 2,100. According to The Washington Post, the EPA also estimates “the new rules will cut traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot by 25 percent…yielding a public health benefit of between $55 billion to $93 billion when it is fully implemented, with 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths avoided and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks a year avoided.”
Carbon dioxide doesn’t cause lung or heart issues by itself, but when it spews out of coal-powered plants, it comes with soot, chemicals, and particulate matter. Targeting carbon dioxide from coal is then a smart way to tackle these other pollutants as well. A study by researchers in New York City found that during days with “high levels of ozone and air pollution, hospital admissions for respiratory problems rose about 20 percent.” Already some 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, including 6.5 million children.
This is not President Obama’s first effort to reduce emissions. New vehicle emission standards for cars and light trucks produced between 2012 and 2025 will cut 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The new rules for coal power plants will remove another 500 million metric tons annually, says The Washington Post.