INNIS: No health benefits without affordable energy

New air-quality rules will further impoverish poor communities

The Environmental Protection Agency insists that its air-quality initiatives will protect minority and poor Americans from pollution that disproportionately affects their health and impairs “environmental justice.” Their argument is not convincing.

Public health, pollution control and justice are important goals. However, the EPA’s proposed rules actually undermine those objectives by impairing access to affordable, reliable energy - thus impairing people’s health and welfare.

The EPA’s health claims about mercury, soot, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants are speculative and based on selective literature searches, according to an extensive analysis by natural scientist Willie Soon (posted at AffordablePowerAlliance.org). The agency failed to consider studies that contradict its claims that poor and minority communities face serious, immediate health risks from power plant emissions, say Mr. Soon and scientists cited in his report.

These emissions have been declining for decades and are not related to asthma rates, which have been rising for reasons unrelated to outdoor air pollution, say air pollution consultant Joel Schwartz and other specialists. Rapid power plant emission reductions of the magnitude contemplated by the EPA would thus not seem necessary.

Worse, the EPA’s pollution rules will impair access to affordable electricity. They will force the closure of multiple power plants, send electricity prices soaring 12 percent to 60 percent, and severely impact business and family budgets, according to studies by Management Information Services, utility associations and other experts.

Especially in the 26 states that rely on coal for 48 percent to 98 percent of their electricity, the EPA’s actions would raise factory, hospital, office, hotel, school, church, charity and other business electricity costs by thousands to millions of dollars annually.

Because every $30,000 in increased energy costs could mean the elimination of another entry-level job, the EPA’s rules would cause further job losses. Management Information Services predicts that 3.5 million jobs and up to $82 billion in annual economic production would be lost in just six Midwestern manufacturing states.

Chicago public schools alone would face an extra $2.7 million a year for electricity by 2014, the ChicagoTribune notes. These increases would mean reductions in school employment, salaries and academic, sports and music programs.

Unemployment is already 9.1 percent nationally and more than 16 percent in black communities. The EPA’s plans would worsen these rates, significantly increase household energy costs and make poor, minority and elderly families even less able to afford gasoline, food, clothing, health care and other basic needs.

Many families would suffer increased stress, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and crime rates. Unable to afford proper heating and air conditioning, disproportionate numbers of people in low-income communities would face hypothermia during frigid winter months and heat prostration during summer heat waves. People would die, as cash-strapped states run out of money for heating and cooling assistance.

Retrofitting older plants is often too costly to justify, and in today’s regulatory and litigious environment, replacing them will be extremely difficult. Analysts project that the EPA’s rules could cost Illinois 3,500 megawatts of electricity generation by 2014 - enough to power 3.5 million homes and small businesses. The United States could lose 17,000 to 81,000 megawatts of capacity by 2017, industry, independent and government experts forecast.

That means further impaired electricity availability and reliability during peak-use periods. It likely would result in brownouts and blackouts, further harming businesses, schools, families, jobs and health.

The EPA says the benefits of its new rules “far exceed” their costs. However, the agency’s analyses and definitions of “human health,” “public welfare” and “environmental justice” fail to consider the vital factors presented here. The fact is, the adverse effects of unemployment, sharply higher energy costs and generally lower socio-economic conditions far outweigh asserted benefits of improved air quality.

“Even when properly done, science can only provide the analytical and factual basis for public policy decisions,” says Roger O. McClellan, former chairman of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. “It cannot and should not dictate a particular policy choice in setting and implementing standards.”

Mr. McClellan agrees with Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whose common-sense, comparative health approach recognizes the detrimental impacts that unemployment and reduced living standards have on people’s health and welfare. “Those impacts far outweigh benefits from further improvements in already good air quality,” especially as calculated using EPA’s computer models and linear extrapolations from limited health and air quality data, Mr. McClellan states.

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