Obama’s Clean Power Plan: Irrelevant and Expensive

At lunch this week with friends who follow environmental politics — but not down to the nitty-gritty details — they asked my take on the long-awaited Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to ratchet down on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. I told them my judgment was that the Environmental Protection Agency’s massive regulation is “irrelevant” and probably costly.

Here’s my reasoning. The plan is consciously designed to follow, not lead, an already declining trend in CO2 emissions. Thanks to Slate for being diligent enough to suss out the essence of the plan. Here is what is found on pages 636-637 of the 1,500+-page monstrosity: the Environmental Protect Agency’s analysis is that the administration’s CO2 reduction targets are “…fully consistent with the recent changes and current trends in electricity generation, and as a result, would by no means entail fundamental redirection of the energy sector. We expect that the main impact of this rule on the nation’s mix of generation will be to reduce coal-fired generation, but in an amount and by a rate that is consistent with recent historical declines in coal-fired generation. Specifically, from approximately 2005 to 2014, coal-fired generation declined at a rate that was greater than the rate of reduced coal-fired generation that we expect to result from this rulemaking from 2015 to 2030. In addition, under this rule, the trends for all other types of generation, including natural gas-fired generation, nuclear generation, and renewable generation, will remain generally consistent with what their trends would be in the absence of this rule.”

Billionaire Mike “Beyond Coal” Bloomberg, writing in his own Bloomberg View publication, said, “We are already halfway to the EPA’s goal—seven years before its rules take full effect, and before many of the coal plant closings that are scheduled to happen over the next decade.”

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg

So the administration’s plan to do what Congress refused to grant it the authority to do is unnecessary. Let’s give a modest, low-volume cheer for Congress.

But the Obama plan likely will be costly, certainly more expensive than letting the market forces now at work continue unimpeded. It ain’t broke, but the White House wants to fix it anyway, at any price.

The EPA plan, should it go into effect after a few years of litigation (far from a certainty, my environmental lawyer friends tell me), will impose a difficult, inefficient and expensive regulatory process that will force states to spend tax dollars to implement and run it. The EPA says the plan will yield net benefits ($26 to $35 billion) and prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work and school days annually.

I’m always skeptical of cost-benefit estimates by bureaucrats who are out to justify what they want to do, regardless of costs. EPA has a habit of doing this. That was part of the objection of the Supreme Court in the EPA’s mercury rule.

There’s also slight-of-hand and smoke-and-mirrors in the EPA claims of benefits. CO2 has nothing to do with asthma (nor is it established that ozone from fossil-fueled plants does, either), as the president’s video curtain-raiser on the new rules claimed. That’s bogus. It’s apparently based on the assumption that closing coal plants will reduce NOX emissions, leading to ozone reductions, leading to asthma reductions. Science has not yet clearly established the cause, or the promoters, of asthma. It’s classic political legerdemain to slip in NOX reduction claims into the justification for a regulation aimed at CO2.

Premature deaths, heart attacks, missed work and school days? Again, those have got nothing to do with CO2. The claims are tied to coal plant closures, which the administration acknowledges are going to happen anyhow.

It seems to me that if the results, in terms of economic costs and health benefits that the administration wants to achieve, are going to happen on their own, counting the benefits as offsetting the administrative and economic costs of the regulation is sophistry.