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EPA Begins Power Plant Regulation

In a harbinger of what could result from effective regulation to power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA announced yesterday a set of regulations for other power plant pollutants.

The targets of EPA’s proposed rule are not greenhouse gases, but two unhealthy toxins released into air when coal is burned — sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The substances are dangerous thanks in part to the tiny particles that can wreak havoc on our respiratory systems. The consequences: asthma, heart disease, and cancer.

Adding to the drama is the fact that many eastern states like New York are downwind of hulking Midwestern plants that spew these pollutants. Their citizens are sickened by the pollution created further west, a problem that the new rule is meant to help address.

In a bit of inconvenient truth-telling, the Bush Administration proposed to deal with this through a cap-and-trade system, the very same kind of system that conservatives everywhere now decry as the stirrings of a socialist takeover. But the DC Circuit Court ruled that cap-and-trade system too lenient and not in line with the text of the Clean Air Act, which demands emission cuts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. So now EPA developed new rules that should have massive economic and public health benefits.

Nevertheless, the agency estimates that in 2012, one million tons of SO2 and around 150,000 tons of NOx will be eliminated under this rule compared with the 2005 CAIR version. Considering the toxicity of these chemicals, that is a major improvement. The health benefits of taking SO2 and NOx out of the air are so great that, even at a higher price, the rule is still vastly cost-benefit justified, saving lives, and generating economic value.

The EPA says the annual benefits of the regulation will be between $120 billion and $290 billion compared to a price tag of $2.8 billion — a huge return for a relatively modest investment.

Essentially, older dirty coal plants would have to upgrade their equipment to reduce their pollution. As Michael Livermore notes, the DC Circuit allowed the cap-and-trade system to survive since 2005, and it did not cause any economic armageddon. In fact, while this command and control approach eliminates more pollutants, it’s also a bit more expensive. But the societal benefit and the hard benefit in dollars offers a ridiculously good return on the investment. McClatchy has more.

The most interested parties in this new rulemaking ought to be US Senators. Because EPA is showing through their actions that they will demand reductions in greenhouse gases that mirror the reductions demanded in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. They’ll act if Congress chooses not to act. And so the choice for the Senate is clear – continue to obstruct and delay and watch EPA command power plants and other polluters to reduce their carbon spewing, or cut a friendlier deal. With more regulations aimed at cleaning the air coming down the line, including a national health standard for ozone and continued carbon regulations, the Senate is on the clock.

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David Dayen

David Dayen