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With coal, the problem isn't just climate change — it's also pollution

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 9/13/2018 Erin Dunne
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

It’s no secret that under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is working to replace existing laws with more relaxed regulations. While the debate on air pollution regulations, for example, often centers on climate change, these polices also have more immediate impacts as well. Before clamoring to support President Trump’s environmental pullback, it’s worth taking a look at the impact that some of the EPA proposals would actually have, not on some imagined future, but on a very real present. 

Take, for example, the EPA’s proposed Affordable Clean Energy Act that would essentially replace the existing Clean Power Plan.

That proposal aims to provide a life line to coal companies and, as the act itself is called, make that energy cheaper. The only problem is that by making coal cheaper, the legislation imposes real costs, such as increased premature mortality rates, and, in the long run, doesn’t provide a net economic benefit.

So, what does this legislation actually do?

ACE differs from the CPP in important ways. Namely, it changes the federal guidelines to be used by states in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and defines “the best system of emissions reductions” as retrofitting power plants to reduce the heat needed to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity (known, more technically, as on-site heat-rate improvements). The proposal also targets the New Source Review program — that’s the program that mandates that power plant operations undergo EPA reviews before expanding or rebuilding.

The impact of those policy changes on health are unsurprising: Because there are fewer regulations keeping pollution out of the air, the result is more polluted air — including fine particulate matter.

Heightened air pollution has real and immediate impacts on health. To understand just what those impacts are, a Harvard-Syracuse study analyzed the difference in health outcomes among various regulatory scenarios. The first scenario close resembles the proposed ACE Act and the second scenario is very similar to the existing CPP.

The results of that study were clear. Under the first scenario, because of the focus on on-site heat reduction that meant the power plants used less heat to produce each kilowatt hour of energy but operated more, there was actually an increase of 10 premature deaths each year by 2020. On the other hand, the more stringent CPP standards led to 3,500 fewer premature deaths and about one thousand fewer hospital visits each year. Those numbers, of course, only account for the immediate beneficiaries of reduced air pollution and do not consider at all any long-term benefits from reducing the impact of climate change.

On the economics side, a separate study looked at the net economic impact of the CPP. That research showed that the total health co-benefits would be $29 billion in 2010 USD. Subtracting the cost of implementation ($17 billion) the net economic impact is $12 billion in 2020. Here these costs only include a small, easily quantifiable amount of the health benefits and do not factor in asthma, stroke, autism, and other health outcomes related the heightened pollutants nor the benefits from mitigation of climate change, increased ecosystem quality that would boost, among other things, crop growth.

As it happens, the CPP, compared with the ACE, also allows for a much more substantial reduction on carbon monoxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming. The CPP would reduce emissions by an estimated 23.6 percent while the ACE would only bring a 2.2 percent reduction compared to 2020 baseline models.

To understand the consequences of the proposed ACE Act does not require hand wringing about climate change or pushing catastrophic scenarios. Instead, setting the debate on climate change aside (although I would argue it is very much worth having) on the grounds of increased health risks and added costs alone, ACE is bad policy.

The government should put the heath of its people and financial prudence over financial boons to coal plants.

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