Coal Tattoo

AEP, EPA and the costs of coal pollution

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce, Kanawha River Plant

Last week’s announcement of potential plant closures by American Electric Power continued to get attention this week here locally and in Washington, D.C. — where EPA Administrator took on AEP directly, telling a congressional committee:

… While Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren’t even harmful. These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.

I pointed out earlier what a poor job many in the local media did in covering this story, and at least one of those media outlets — West Virginia MetroNews — must have been reading. Because they actually gave EPA its say (a week late):

Federal EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told members of a congressional committee Wednesday her agency plans to continue to make its public health decisions on the principles of “the law and the best science.”

“Over the 40-year history of the Clean Air Act our GDP has grown 200 percent. So if history is any guide, we can do this,” Jackson said. “We can have safer, healthier air and have a growing economy.”

Not for nothing, but it’s not like EPA is all that effective in defending itself in these situations. I spent much of the week trying to get someone from EPA to do a phone interview about how some of these plant closings may have been driven by an AEP court settlement over long-standing pollution violations. So far, nobody from EPA has agreed to an interview.

Outside of West Virginia, there’s been a somewhat different reaction to the AEP announcement.  For example, The National Journal ran a piece headlined, Power company contradicts itself on EPA rules, reporting:

American Electric Power, one of the nation’s biggest coal utilities, downplayed the impact of EPA regulations to its investors while forecasting a doom-and-gloom outcome for Washington policymakers.

Sound familiar? It’s the same game that the coal-mining industry played with EPA’s crackdown on mountaintop removal permits, as we reported here on Coal Tattoo a year and a half ago.

The National Journal pointed out that a week before its gloom-and-doom announcement about jobs losses and rate hikes, AEP CEO Michael Morris was telling a quite different story to investors and potential investors:

… Morris had sought to allay investors’ concerns about the plant closures and their effect on AEP’s bottom line at a June 1 investors conference.

“On balance, we think that is the appropriate way to go,” Morris said of the closures. “Not only to treat our customers, but also to treat our shareholders, near and long term, with that small amount of the fleet going off-line.”

Most of what AEP said it will have to shutter is spare capacity, used when it’s very hot or cold. (The plants were used, for example, during last week’s Midwestern heat spell.) That fact was not included in the company’s release, but Morris made sure to remind investors.

“As you know, those are high-cost plants and dispatch infrequently,” Morris said. He went on to add that most of them didn’t run at all in 2009 because natural-gas prices were so low.

There was also a very interesting piece in The Hill about a report that indicates regulations like the EPA air toxics rule will have little impact on the reliability of our electrical system.

Almost lost in the shuffle of criticism of either AEP or EPA on this situation is the fact that EPA has delayed its rule on power plant greenhouse emission and who knows when the agency will get around to doing something about toxic coal ash.

Here in West Virginia, state Public Service Commission Chairman Mike Albert (a former utility lawyer with Jackson Kelly) got a lot of attention for some of these remarks made at a legislative interim committee meeting:

He said coal accounts for more than 50 percent of the cost of electric generation, and the long-term trends are for increasing worldwide demand for energy, and implementation of tough environmental regulations in the U.S.

“It’s easy to sit back and say, “We need clean air, and we need to not burn coal, but every action has a consequence,” Albert said.

What an incredibly simplistic sort of position for someone who is supposed to regulate a very complex enterprise to make … I mean, gosh, “every action has a consequence”?

Sure … but you didn’t hear Mike Albert talking about some of the consequences of not further reducing the pollution from coal-fired power plants.  I wonder if he’s read the National Academy of Science report documenting at least $62 million in “hidden costs” of burning coal.

That brings me back to this week’s Senate committee hearing, and what seemed to me to be the most interesting stuff. The focus is often on the back-and-forth between Republican lawmakers and a Democratic EPA chief. But what about the testimony from public health and medical professionals who support EPA’s proposed rule?

Take Sarah Bucic of the American Nurses Association, who told lawmakers:

For vulnerable populations—children, the elderly, people with asthma, those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or chronic bronchitis and emphysema– the dangers posed by exposure is even greater. Approximately 3.2 million children and nearly 9.5 million adults with asthma live in parts of the United States with high levels of ozone, 1.2 million children and 3.8 million adults with asthma live in areas with high levels of short-term particulate matter pollution.

For these populations, a bad air day isn’t just an inconvenience: a day when they are told not to mow their lawn, or have to wait until dark to fill their gas tank. A bad air day can be life or death. A bad air day can keep them from school, from work, from the grocery store, in short from living life.

The bottom line is pollution creates more patients. From a nursing perspective, our interventions remain limited if the environment remains polluted. We are fixed in a state of keeping patients with chronic conditions like asthma and other pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions stabilized, when we all know that prevention is the only real, effective and long-term treatment.

Our health is clearly and inextricably linked to the health of our environment, and we owe it to ourselves and our children to build on the success of the Clean Air Act by supporting the life-saving standards advanced under this landmark public health law. We cannot afford to roll back these vital protections, and we must ensure that the standards set for regulating ozone, particulate matter, mercury and other air toxics reflect the best science and truly protect the public.

Or Jerome Paulson of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who told the committee:

Since the Clean Air Act was enacted, we have learned much about the relationship between air pollution and health through thousands of epidemiologic and controlled studies. The Clean Air Act has made incredible improvements in the environment, in the health of infants and children, and in the quality of life for all Americans. However, the impacts of the Clean Air Act have not been universally felt. Air quality in some areas of the United States has improved, but in some areas it has actually decreased, and millions of Americans still live in areas where monitored air fails to meet EPA standards for at least one of six criteria pollutants.

In addition, in the last 40 years, we have learned that serious health effects of air pollutants are experienced at levels much lower than previously considered “safe” levels of exposure, particularly for vulnerable populations such as infants, children, the elderly, and individuals with respiratory diseases.

Air quality standards should be drafted or revised to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are protected. Potential effects of air pollution on the fetus, infant, and child should be evaluated and all standards should include a margin of safety for protection of children. Congress and the Administration must keep these principles in mind when considering any changes or modifications to the Clean Air Act. If we fail to protect children against air pollution, we accept the cost of living with and treating preventable birth defects, chronic diseases, and disability among our nation’s infants and children. If we fail to protect children against air pollution, we also accept the cost of permanently reduced lung capacity and productivity in adults.

And if the only thing you really want to talk about is jobs … well, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute says the EPA air toxics rule is a winner in that regard as well:

… The political debate over regulations tends to ignore the overall benefits and be narrowed down to the jobs impact. It is understandable that there is attention to jobs as they are always a concern and as the concern for jobs is certainly heightened by the current jobs crisis. Whether regulation in general and the toxics rule in particular costs jobs is an empirical question this paper attempts to answer. In particular, this paper examines the possible channels through which the proposed toxics rule could affect employment in the United States and finds that claims that this regulation destroys jobs are flat wrong: The jobs-impact of the rule will be modest, but it will be positive. The claims of this paper are conservative—the toxics rule is not a jobs program. Instead, it is a regulatory change that generates great benefits at moderate costs and, along the way, will likely create a relatively modest number of jobs.