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Friday, August 19, 2011

Republican Attacks on the EPA

The reasons behind the recent Republican attacks on the EPA are coming into focus:

Getting ready for a wave of coal-plant shutdowns, by Brad Plumer: Over the next 18 months, the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize a flurry of new rules to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants. Mercury, smog, ozone, greenhouse gases, water intake, coal ash—it’s all getting regulated. And, not surprisingly, some lawmakers are grumbling.
Industry groups such the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, and the American Legislative Exchange Council have dubbed the coming rules “EPA’s Regulatory Train Wreck.” The regulations, they say, will cost utilities up to $129 billion and force them to retire one-fifth of coal capacity. Given that coal provides 45 percent of the country’s power, that means higher electric bills, more blackouts and fewer jobs. The doomsday scenario has alarmed Republicans in the House, who have been scrambling to block the measures. Environmental groups retort that the rules will bring sizeable public health benefits, and that industry groups have been exaggerating the costs of environmental regulations since they were first created.
So, who’s right? This month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which conducts policy research for members of Congress, has been circulating a paper that tries to calmly sort through the shouting match. ... And the upshot is that CRS is awfully skeptical of the “train wreck” predictions. ...
The CRS report doesn’t try to evaluate the costs of the new rules, noting that it will depend on site-specific factors and will vary by utility and state. ... But, the report says, industry groups have almost certainly overstated the costs. ...
The CRS report also agrees with green groups that the benefits of these new rules shouldn’t be downplayed. Those can be tricky to quantify, however. In one example, the EPA estimates that an air-transport rule to clamp down on smog-causing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide would help prevent 21,000 cases of bronchitis and 23,000 heart attacks, and save 36,000 lives. That’s $290 billion in health benefits, compared with $2.8 billion per year in costs by 2014. “In most cases,” CRS notes, “the benefits are larger.”
Granted, few would expect this report to change many minds in Congress. Just 10 days ago, Michele Bachmann was on the campaign trail promising that if she becomes president, “I guarantee you the EPA will have doors locked and lights turned off, and they will only be about conservation.” ...

There's a generous interpretation -- Republicans are ideologically opposed to regulation and this is consistent with their general philosophy. There's also an explanation that isn't as generous that involves using a call for free markets to do what's best for those who provide campaign cash.

I think it's hard to deny that there is market failure in the electricity generation industry. The externalities are pretty clear. If this was about making markets work, then the debate ought to be about how best to force firms to internalize all of the costs of production (and if some firms are unprofitable when they are forced to pay all costs, then that's the market speaking and Republicans ought to listen). Should we impose a tax of some sort? Should we rely upon market-based regulation, or is command and control better in this instance? Is this a case where the market failures are so small that any intervention would do more harm than good? Is there a case for self-regulation given the history in this industry? And so on.

But that's not how the debate is carried out. It seems to be more of a knee-jerk reflexive defense whenever supporter's interests are threatened in any way. Politicians in particular hide behind a call for free markets without ever explaining how letting markets be free to fail, and fail badly, is the best choice for society (not in every case, of course, there are certainly those who are ideologically consistent). That leads me to suspect that while there are certainly people on the right who are interested in using things like carbon taxes to overcome these market failures, we shouldn't underplay the extent to which the opposition to the EPA and to regulation more generally is driven by other factors.

    Posted by on Friday, August 19, 2011 at 10:17 AM in Economics, Environment, Policy, Politics | Permalink  Comments (43)



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