A War on Coal?

April 15, 2013

Some observers have criticized the Obama administration for using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to install onerous environmental regulations on the coal industry. For instance, the new rules aimed at cutting emissions will force dozens of coal-fired plants to shut down or convert to natural gas. However, the rules are not the result of Obama's efforts but of Congress' long-time legislative requirements, says Richard Gordon, professor emeritus of mineral economics at Pennsylvania State University.

  • While many conservatives consider the EPA to be the problem, many of the overzealous environmental rulemaking is mandated by provisions of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA).
  • The CAA controls air pollutants that have a significant effect on health or welfare and the CWA restricts the discharge of hazardous pollutants that harm aquatic life.
  • The wording of the CAA and CWA essentially ban every type of human activity and thus the EPA is forced to decide how stringently to enforce the mandates while balancing political pressure and a wary public.

Embedded within the CAA and CWA are design flaws that require the EPA to consider the net benefit of its rules while at the same time requiring that the EPA ignores costs. The EPA uses "science" to reinforce the legitimacy of its actions but frequently interprets the scientific results selectively.

  • The EPA has misinterpreted two major epidemiological studies, one by the Harvard School of Public Health and the other by the American Cancer Society.
  • In each study, the EPA selectively cited the portion of the survey population that lived near pollution monitoring but not vice versa.
  • For proposed rules, the agency estimates the reduction in emissions uses the previous misinterpretation to estimate the health benefits and then estimates the value of the life saved.

Most of these rules were mandated by the CAA or CWA many years ago. To blame the Obama administration entirely is off-base, though the president has not taken any action to slow the regulations.

Source: Richard Gordon, "An EPA War on Coal?" Regulation Magazine, April 2013.

 

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