- - Monday, April 22, 2013


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has now missed its April 13 deadline for finalizing rules limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants. The rules as proposed included an unattainable standard for new coal plants that would have left the nation unable to use its most plentiful energy source. While the delay is good news for the economy, it’s not enough. The agency needs to scrap the current approach altogether.

More than a year ago, the EPA proposed its first-ever greenhouse-gas regulations for power plants. The rules would prohibit new plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity generated. The standard is one that natural gas plants already meet, so would apply only to new coal-fired plants, rendering it effectively a backdoor ban on new coal plants. United Mine Workers of America head Cecil Roberts said the rule “is an all-out decision by the EPA that we’re never going to have another coal-fired facility in the United States.” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune agreed, saying that the unattainable requirements would “make it nearly impossible to build a new coal plant.”

Is that really what America needs?

The United States accounts for 27 percent of the world’s known coal reserves, according to the Institute for Energy Research, and if you consider total estimated resources and not just provable reserves, it is thought there is enough coal within the United States to last more than 9,000 years at today’s consumption levels.

By walling off such a plentiful source of cheap energy, an EPA-imposed halt on new coal plants would hit Americans directly in their pocketbooks. More than 90 percent of U.S. coal consumption goes to generate electricity, and it currently accounts for roughly 37 percent of total power production. It’s true that use of natural gas is growing rapidly, thanks in large part to new technology allowing access to shale, and this is an encouraging development for consumers, but there’s no guarantee natural-gas prices will remain so low.

A recent Duke University study found that because of the added costs of coal production resulting from EPA’s new rules, the price of natural gas could increase by a factor of four and still be cheaper than coal plants meeting the rule requirements. This means there will be little protection for consumers from a potential natural-gas price shock. Owing to market manipulation, in other words, there would be fewer low-cost options for energy production to pick up the slack if the price of natural gas increases. In short, natural gas is no silver bullet, and America needs power from both gas and coal to keep costs down.

Citing these concerns and demonstrating bipartisan opposition to the rules, four Democratic senators recently authored a letter to President Obama urging that the agency’s plan be reconsidered. However, would just tinkering with the rules do enough?

There’s little reason to think the rules will have much of any environmental impact. Carbon dioxide poses no immediate threat to humans, and is thus only considered a pollutant by the EPA because of its claimed contribution to global warming. The agency continues to ignore disagreement within the scientific community over the classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Moreover, it also admits that the rules will do nothing to impact overall carbon dioxide emissions.

Another important question is whether the EPA even has the authority to bypass Congress and unilaterally enact such sweeping changes to national energy policy. Jeffrey Holmstead, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation during the Bush administration, says there is “no way it can stand up in court.”

We shouldn’t need the courts to step in, however. It’s just bad government to have unelected bureaucrats at an executive branch agency with a narrow agenda making law and creating quasi-mandates that impact the entire economy. The EPA has consistently demonstrated a disregard for the economic costs of its rulings, eschewing a cost-benefit analysis in pursuit of an increasingly radical agenda.

The electorate deserves to have a say when it comes to policies that will potentially raise energy costs for a dubious-at-best environmental benefit. The costs and benefits of such a policy should be publicly debated by elected officials who are accountable to the public. Until such time as that happens, the EPA should scrap its proposed new power-plant regulations that are designed only to give one fuel preferential treatment over another.

Andrew F. Quinlan is co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (freedomandprosperity.org).



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