To waste, to destroy, our natural resources … will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.” So said Pres. Theodore Roosevelt in his seventh message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1907.
Propelled by funds doled out by billionaire owners of fossil-fuel companies, Republicans in Congress—joined by some coal-state Democrats—have launched a political crusade against science to roll back environmental protections. In the process, they have abandoned the American ideals that led Eisenhower to protect the Arctic, Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and George Schultz to preserve California’s climate protection law. Public health professionals and virtually every environmental organization are arrayed against them. In the balance resides our posterity.
The EPA is among their prime targets. For example, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan—the new Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—is pressing for passage of a measure to block EPA’s existing statutory authority to restrict greenhouse gas pollution, and thus functionally overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark climate decision in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007). Upton’s measure, H.R. 910, recently passed the committee on a 34-19 vote. All the committee Republicans voted yes, while 19 of the 24 Democrats voted no.
In a statement to the Committee on Energy and Commerce prior to its March 14 vote, Rep. Lois Capps denounced H.R. 910 for jeopardizing “the health of American families” and for its rejection of “the overwhelming scientific consensus—agreed to even by George W. Bush’s EPA—that carbon pollution threatens our national security, economy, and environment.” (Emphasis is original.) She observed, “Stopping the EPA from doing its job now means more Americans will suffer ill health, not fewer. It means more clean energy jobs outsourced overseas and fewer American jobs here at home. And more American dollars spent keeping us addicted to foreign oil.”
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) seeks to strip EPA’s funding to administer its greenhouse gas inventory program, and so keep the public in the dark as to major emitters of such pollution. Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) would bar use of federal funds to enforce emissions limits on toxic air emissions from cement plants. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) urges a ban on funding for any EPA enforcement efforts relating to stationary source greenhouse gas pollution.
Piling on, Rep. David McKinley, a Republican also from West Virginia, would bar the EPA from listing coal ash as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) seeks to stop the EPA from reviewing water pollution threats at proposed coal-mining projects. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) is pressing a measure to stop the EPA from issuing final standards for air pollution from industrial boilers. West Virginia’s Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, suggests giving power plants a two-year pass before the EPA could restrict their climate pollution.
EPA scientists have recommended a series of limitations on emissions and discharges of pollutants that induce cancer, cause birth defects, and disrupt the planet’s climate system. The recommendations are characterized by measured care in both their examination of the potential harm that unabated pollution may impose on human health and in their analysis of how such pollution might be reasonably controlled. Under the Bush Administration, such recommendations frequently were buried by political managers. Under current Administrator Lisa Jackson, the EPA has renewed its commitment to integrity and reason. This renewed commitment, in conjunction with judicial declarations that the law of environmental protection may not be ignored, has put the EPA back to work on rules that implement the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other key protections.
That work is especially urgent with respect to coal-fired power facilities. These account for half the energy generated in the United States and at least 80 percent of the electricity sector’s carbon-dioxide pollution. (On an equivalent energy basis, burning coal yields twice the CO2 pollution as natural gas.) CO2 emissions, in turn, are the principal driver of global warming, so that continued use of coal constitutes our nation’s principal physical contribution to disruption of the global climate system and its associated risks, including hyper storms, wide crop failure, and ecosystem collapse.
In addition, coal burning accounts for most of the power sector’s emissions of fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury pollution. This stew of pollutants is implicated in reduced worker productivity, respiratory and cardiovascular illness, lung cancer, birth defects, and sudden infant death. Indeed, virtually every step in the life cycle of coal—including its mining, processing, transport, combustion, and disposal of associated wastes—implicates public health. Coal sludge and slurry impoundments, and coal-ash landfills and ponds, for example, routinely leach contaminants to groundwater, including ammonia, arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chlorides, cyanide, lead, selenium, and other salts and metals.
In a recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences, analysts at the Harvard Medical School attempted to account for the full costs of the various waste streams derived from the extraction, processing, combustion, and disposal of coal. Those monetized costs totaled, on an annual basis, up to a half trillion dollars a year in the United States alone. If reflected in its selling price, coal readily would be recognized as uneconomic compared with efficiency initiatives and renewable energy sources. Instead, about two-thirds of coal’s actual costs are external to its price, so that the major share is borne by the public in the guise of damaged health and disrupted human and natural systems.
On the other hand, studies have demonstrated that prior EPA rules that aimed to protect public health and the environment yielded significantly greater benefits than costs. The EPA’s newly promulgated, pending, and proposed rules likely will have the same net beneficial monetized impact.
These include, for example, rules to require major sources of greenhouse gas pollution to adopt the “best available control technology” when they are newly constructed or else when they undertake major modifications of their facility that significantly increase their emissions. They include, as well, a commitment to propose requirements on coal- and oil-fired power plants to employ the “maximum achievable control technology” so as to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, dioxins, and other hazardous air pollutants. Importantly, EPA’s recently proposed rule for power-plant air toxics—if adopted without weakening amendments—is estimated to prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths and 120,000 asthma attacks on an annual basis.
Recent polls demonstrate that strong majorities of the public want the EPA to do its job and strictly limit pollution to protect public health. This is true even in districts whose elected representatives are leading the present charge against EPA. We will learn soon whether these assaults will undermine our health, the environment, and a stable climate system, or whether they will boomerang politically and actually galvanize the public’s determination to ensure a viable future.
Dan Galpern is an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. Contact him via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.