Choke on This: EPA’s CSPAR Illegal
On Tuesday the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the EPA’s most recent attempt to attempt to reduce interstate air pollution was improper. You need some context to understand the issues involved and the scope of the problem.
The scope of the problem is interstate. There are upwind states – the states where power plant and industrial smokestacks emit nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides. And there are downwind states – the states where those same nitrous and sulfur oxides pollute the atmosphere, generate acid rain and threaten the health of citizens. It’s a classic interstate problem that afflicts the lower 48 states. And it is very serious; huge swaths of hardwood forests in downwind states have been annihilated by acid rain. The EPA and the Center for Disease Control estimates that the air pollution kills 13,000 to 34,000 people a year.
The technology exists to at least mitigate, if not solve, the air pollution problem. But it comes at a cost. Purchase, installation and maintenance of the “scrubbers” that would remove the bulk of the dangerous pollutants (if not the climate-changing CO2) will increase the cost of energy to consumers. Or, more correctly, would make them pay a higher portion of the true cost of the energy they use. Increased energy costs might also move more manufacturing overseas, to countries that care a bit less about harm to the environment, so there’s a job loss issue, too.
Most rational folks would agree with everything WC has said so far. The issue is, who should pay? And that’s what the court fights have been about. Sure, there’s a noisy minority that want low energy costs and manufacturing jobs, no matter the cost to themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Mostly, the noisy minority consists of energy-sector employees and their flaks. And Teabaggers, of course.
The EPA’s effort to allocate the costs of reducing pollutants was something called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSPAR). It’s actually the second effort at such a rule; the first effort was rejected by the same court of appeals back in 2008. It’s a cost allocation problem. The simplest approach would have been to apportion the costs of reductions according to the amount of pollution that each upwind state was contributing. The problem is that such a rule doesn’t target the most dangerous and damaging pollutants, or target the ones that are quickest and cheapest to address. So the EPA’s solution was the CSPAR. The CSPAR would have required polluters to cleanup according to the cost of the reductions, so that the work would get done in the places where the cost of capturing a ton of sulfur or nitrogen oxides was the cheapest. The EPA’s rule also created a trading system in which the states could trade in pollution credits, with the actual work being done in the places where it was easiest to do it.
What the D.C. Court of Appeals found by a 2-1 vote was that the EPA’s effort to manage the costs of cutting the pollution exceeded its authority under the Clear Air Act. The court didn’t find that the EPA had erred in attempting to force a reduction in pollutants; only that the cost allocation scheme exceeded the authority granted to the EPA by Congress.
So here’s where things stand: a seriously watered-down version of the interstate air pollution regulation may still remain in effect, but it has proven to be incomplete and ineffective. Industry continues to belch out truly horrific amounts of very dangerous pollutants. Never mind that the $800 million in costs for CSPAR would have been offset by an estimated economic benefit of $120 – 280 billion. That’s a minimum 15,000% rate of return, by the way.
At this point, it would probably take amendments to the Clean Air Act to get a sensible cost-sharing mechanism in place. And the chances of that happening when folks like the Koch Brothers own the House of Representatives are effectively zero. So an estimated 400,000 Americans will suffer aggravated asthma in 2014, and 1.8 million will miss work or school. All at a huge financial cost to the country as a whole. But we can’t do anything about it, because it might hurt profits.