The EPA Politely Asks New Coal Plants to Tone Down the Pollution

The EPA on Friday will introduce a limit on pollution from new coal power plants, the equivalent of finally giving a very sick, long-suffering patient some aspirin. It's a tidy package of government dysfunction.

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After only about 50 years and billions and billions more pounds of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, the EPA on Friday will introduce a limit on the amount of pollution new coal power plants can produce. This is the equivalent of a desperately ill person waiting at the hospital emergency room for hours while the doctors debate whether or not to treat him then being given a few aspirin. It's an important step regardless — but also a tidy package of the worst of government dysfunction.

The proposal will limit carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants — by far the largest single contributor to climate change. It will do so, however, with the following caveats. First, the new rule only applies to newly-built coal plants; a rule for existing plants is expected next summer as the president announced in June. Second, new coal plants will not need to eliminate carbon dioxide ("carbon," in the parlance) production — that's impossible, really — but to capture it. And, third, they will only need to capture 40 percent of what is produced.

Again, this is important. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. carbon output comes from electricity production. Burning coal (as opposed to natural gas) to generate power is dirty in many, many ways, but its production of greenhouse gases poses the most severe long-term risk. (Over the short-term, the not-fully-scrubbed emissions from plants produce particulates and other compounds that pose significant health risks.) In a blog post, the new head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, offered the rationale for tackling emissions.

The 12 hottest years on record have come in the last 15. Last year was the warmest year ever in the contiguous United States; sea ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record and about one-third of all Americans experienced 10 days or more of 100-degree heat. ...

In 2011, power plants and major industrial facilities in the United States emitted over 3 billion metric tons of carbon pollution, which is equal to annual pollution from over 640 million cars. Annually in the U.S., carbon pollution from power plants accounts for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, or 40 percent of total carbon pollution, surpassing industrial sources or the transportation sector. That means power plants emit more carbon pollution than every boat, plane, train, and car in the U.S. combined.

Curbing carbon pollution with a new regulation seems obvious, at the least. Detractors will (and already have) weighed in in opposition: China produces far more CO2 (true; but China is tackling its carbon production); given the immature state of carbon capture technology, this is essentially a ban on new coal power plants (iffy; the new rule is likely to significantly stimulate that marketplace).

Given the science behind the evidence noting the danger of burning coal for power, it's actually sort of weird that, in 2013, a complete ban on new coal plants isn't something that's been proposed. The reason why is simple and obvious: There is a massive political and economic investment in the coal-production-and-burning industry. And, second, that even a ban on new plants wouldn't fix the climate problem even in the U.S.

Taking that second point first, we get at the aspirin analogy above. A full third of the carbon dioxide America produces from electricity production comes from one percent of our coal plants, as Mother Jones reported. America's greenhouse gas problem isn't just carbon dioxide, but it's largely carbon dioxide. And it's largely existing plants that are the problem — a rule for which we won't see until 2015. Meanwhile, our car emissions (which will drop as new miles-per-gallon rules kick in) and methane production (including that which stems from leaks at fracking sites) produce a ton of warming gases, too.

But the big problem is the politics. We touched on this when the rule coming out Friday was first speculated, but it's worth a deeper look.

Global warming is a long-term, subtle problem, very much like the frog in the frying pan. It is subject to short-term variability that allows those who seek to deny its existence to downplay real effects, like the massive, powerful storm bearing down on Asia, and exaggerate anomalies like cooler-than-average temperatures in the summer. (Before the objections roll in: the super-typhoon's strength is exactly what warmer climate models predict: more moisture and more energy from more atmospheric heat.)

It also has a built-in constituency eager to deny its effects. For one of the first significant times in the history of modern capitalism, we're seeing a threat to a dominant industry that has at its disposal all of the tools of modern marketing and persuasion. The fossil fuel industry suffers from a number of economic constraints: extraction costs, competition from renewable sources, and so on. ExxonMobil is in no immediate danger of collapse — nor, as Business Insider points out, is the coal industry — but it certainly doesn't like what it sees on the horizon. Most specifically: Being asked to clean up after itself.

So it and its allies lean heavily on advertising/lobbying teams to make the case for the status quo. This helps produce the cycle we see above. Something sparks a push for change (like Hurricane Sandy or An Inconvenient Truth), there's a new push for a political solution, the politics collapse, and so the president and EPA create a regulation. That's where we are in the cycle now. Obama, during his State of the Union, demanded a political solution to carbon emissions. When it didn't happen, he turned to regulations. And now the opposition will move into action, as has happened in the past.

Not much needs to be said about why no political action was taken (as the president clearly expected there wouldn't be). Earlier this week, the head of the EPA and the Department of Energy were called before a House Science Committee so that members of the House could argue against the existence of climate change. This happened, in 2013. (Protestors in the audience wore tin-foil hats to suggest their opinion of the Congressional climate change deniers.)

Flat denial is one political tactic. Another is the insistence that Congress be allowed to come up with a solution, which of course it will refuse to do. Republican Bob Inglis, who once represented South Carolina in the House, was booted in a primary race after he dared to suggest that climate change was a problem. He now runs an organization called the Energy and Enterprise Institute which released a statement arguing that the EPA rule was the wrong way to go, arguing for a market-based solution. That solution will never happen with the current House, of course, as Inglis, better than most, should know. So the argument is really for continued inaction, which fits the needs of ExxonMobil and the like just perfectly. It's the NRA strategy — obstruct and deny and fight and lobby — but with a much broader implication.

At Slate, Matt Yglesias offers a good analogy for why action should be taken, in whatever form.

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.

This, he points out, is what coal plants and other fossil fuel companies have done for a century: dump particles and ozone and sulfur dioxides and carbon dioxides into the air instead of cleaning them up. Of course, these things are largely invisible, so we can't really blame coal plants in 1913 for not installing non-existent scrubbers in their smokestacks. But it isn't 1913, and the companies that have been dumping garbage for decades saved enough money by doing so to build think tanks and sponsor news networks and lobby Congress to ensure that they could keep dumping trash into the air.

The EPA is asking new restaurants to put at least four-tenths of their waste into trash cans. Prepare for all Hell to break loose over that proposal.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.