It’s Hard to Argue with the EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules for power plants may be strictly symbolic, but they are still important.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed revised rules yesterday for new power plants, setting limits on the amount of carbon dioxide new facilities fired by coal and natural gas can legally emit. The rules will not be final until a year from now, at which point they will likely be challenged in court. And natural gas plants already produce less than the proposed limit, and the industry was not going to build any new coal-fired plants anyway, because natural gas is more economical. So the new rules essentially have no practical consequences.

Still, they’re important, because in announcing them, the Obama administration is convincingly demonstrating its case for regulating carbon dioxide emissions. The people who are opposed have been forced into making some silly arguments.

First, the administration’s legal case is overwhelming. In fact, as David Roberts noted earlier this year, the agency is legally obligated to regulate carbon dioxide pollution. “EPA is not ‘bypassing’ Congress, or going around it, or in any way exceeding its authority. It is not even acting on Obama’s discretion, not really. It is simply carrying out the will of Congress, as embodied in the Clean Air Act,” he wrote. Carbon dioxide is among the most destructive atmospheric pollutants, so the agency is required to regulate it. Anyone who disagrees has to argue that carbon dioxide isn’t harmful, which is to deny that global warming is caused by human activity.

The coal industry is likely to sue the agency anyway, on the grounds that the carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology the rules envisions new coal plants using has not been “adequately demonstrated.” It is true that the technology is prohibitively expensive, but that isn’t the regulators’ problem.

That points to the second problem with the arguments for coal, which is economic. The administration proposed comparable limits for new plants fired by coal and natural gas, making clear that the world shouldn’t have to put up with additional greenhouse emissions from coal plants for the same amount of electricity simply because of the fuel they use. Matthew Yglesias contrasts the power sector with other kinds of economic activity that are routinely regulated:

I live down the block from Le Diplomate, a popular newish restaurant in DC. This restaurant, in the course of doing its business, generates a lot of trash. And by District law, like other commercial establishments it needs to pay a garbage company to haul that trash away. It would, of course, be cheaper for them to just leave the trash in the alley rather than paying for cleanup. But this wouldn’t be a real efficiency gain of any kind. It’s just that the cost of trash disposal would be shifted off the shoulders of Le Diplomate’s owner (who conveniently lives in Philadelphia) and onto the shoulders of those of us who live on the block.

By extension, if another restaurant is operating nearby but were producing far more waste than Le Diplomate, there would be no reason for that restaurant to receive some kind of exemption from the city regarding disposal. That restaurant would simply be less efficient, and it is certainly not the proper place of government to foster economic inefficiency. Sen. Joe Manchin made this blunder yesterday when he claimed that “this Administration is trying to hold the coal industry to impossible standards.” Those standards are even somewhat less onerous than those placed on new natural-gas plants, so this amounted to an involuntary admission by the senator that coal has no place in the energy sector in the future. (Joanna Foster has more on calculating the economic effects of carbon dioxide pollution.)

The agency will soon propose rules on existing power plants, which will do much more to protect the atmosphere and which are likely to provoke much stronger opposition from the industry. The arguments for and against regulation will remain the same, however. In the absence of a better solution from Congress, such as a carbon tax, I’m hoping that the precedent set yesterday will make the next round of rulemaking go more smoothly.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund