New EPA Carbon Rules Face Unfounded Conservative Backlash


In late March, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules regulating carbon dioxide emissions for new fossil fuel power plants. Naturally, as with any regulation or climate-change policy, reactions so far have been anything but timid. Environmental groups have loudly and repeatedly praised the standards, while conservative groups and energy companies decried it as the biggest job-killer this side of nuclear war. Rep. Eric Cantor's (R-VA) conservative majority, passed a bill to overturn the regulation permanently — just as they have done after every one of the EPA's recent regulations. Never mind the fact that Congress would have to overturn the entire Clean Air Act to actually stop the EPA's authority to enact these regulations; or the fact that the Senate is not likely to ever pass one of these Republican bills; or the fact that President Obama has already threatened to veto such legislation anyway.

At this point, a little bit of background wonkery on the new regulations is in order. The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set and enforce regulations on those pollutants which, "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." Now, people like to argue that carbon dioxide can't effect your health (other than to suffocate you if you get too much of it), but in 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that based on the Clean Air Act's definitions of a pollutant, any greenhouse gas would be considered a dangerous pollutant, therefore requiring the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide. Almost five years after the Court released its opinion, the EPA released the second of its carbon dioxide regulations which applied to new power plants (the rules for automobiles were released in 2010.)

The new rule, which only applies to brand new fossil fuel plants, will certainly help to, in time, stabilize our changing climate — changes which I believe are largely caused by human impact.  Not only does climate change mean higher air temperatures, more extreme weather, and rising sea levels, but it actually is predicted to severely degrade air quality. This degraded air quality poses particularly high risks for children, the elderly, and those with preexisting respiratory diseases. So, altogether, these rules are definitely good for public health and the environment.

Now, every time a rule gets proposed, the backlash from conservatives and power companies is immediate. They always argue the new rule will shut down plants, kill hundreds of jobs, and drive up your energy prices. But the thing is that in this case, none of those accusations are true. Again, since the standards are based on the emissions rate of the decreasingly expensive, increasingly dominant, natural-gas plants, the new rules wont require energy companies to forego designs for their new plants for more-expensive options.

Second, the new rules don't say anything about already-standing plants, so they will not effect any plant currently supplying you with power. Now, the EPA is expected to release rules on existing sources, but not for many months, and we cannot make judgment on those rules before they are actually proposed.

Any standard that would increase the efficiency of power plants is a boon to public health and the environment, and in this case, there is no credible argument to be made that the proposed standard would hurt the industry — coal plants are already being displaced by natural-gas plants, so the EPA is doing nothing but holding the industry up to the standard of the new dominant player in the industry. Though it's not the massive push towards full adoption of renewable sources, the new rules are a good first step in the right direction.