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The Assault on Our Health

Dan Lashof

Posted September 19, 2012

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Tomorrow I will be testifying before the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. The hearing is officially on H.R. 6172, a bill that would prevent EPA from issuing life-saving standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants, but it is part of a larger effort by House Republican Leaders to score political points under the guise of shielding polluting industries from the specter of environmental safeguards, energy efficiency, and renewable energy development.

More on the full war later; first let’s talk about the battle over H.R. 6172 that I will participate in during tomorrow’s hearing. I will tell the committee that NRDC strongly opposes H.R. 6172 because it would interfere with EPA’s ability to do its job of setting standards to protect families and communities from the effects of dangerous carbon pollution emitted by power plants (my full statement is available here). The bill does that by rewriting the Clean Air Act to block EPA from setting any standards for power plant carbon pollution until one specific technology – carbon capture and storage (CCS) – is deemed “technologically and economically feasible” for fossil fuel-fired power plants by a panel of four federal officials outside of EPA. 

This new legal hurdle has just one purpose:  To block EPA from doing its job to protect us from dangerous power plant pollution.  We would never have held clean car and fuel efficiency standards hostage to one technology, like electric cars.  It makes no more sense for power plants and CCS. 

No other polluter and no other pollutant are shielded by such a special hurdle under the Clean Air Act.  For more than 40 years EPA has set pollution standards for scores of industrial categories based on emissions performance¸ not on a particular technology.  Each company is free to choose the cheapest way to meet that standard.  Ironically, the supporters of H.R. 6172, who often rail against “command and control regulations,” would turn that approach on its head by picking one technology—CCS—as the sole basis for power plant carbon pollution standards.

Moreover, H.R. 6172 would put authority over power plant standards in the hands of four non-EPA officials with no mandate to protect public health and the environment.  This would be an unprecedented and dangerous change to the Clean Air Act.

Whoever is on the panel, they may never be able to make the finding that CCS is economically feasible because the marketplace is already providing cleaner and more competitive alternatives.  New coal-fired plants aren’t competitive today even without CCS, because our needs for new power are being met more cheaply by low-cost natural gas, improved wind turbines, and inexpensive energy efficiency.  So even though there are proven ways to cut power plant carbon emissions, EPA could be permanently blocked from setting any standards at all.

If you’re tempted to give the sponsors of H.R. 6172 the benefit of the doubt and assume they are pursuing a well-meaning, but misguided effort to promote CCS technology, think again. The bill would do nothing to accelerate deployment of CCS. Instead it would just block other solutions.

No, the true colors of the House Republicans are revealed by their larger assault on public health protections of all sorts. Flying under the banner of defending the economy on Friday the House will be voting on H.R. 3409, the so-called “Stop the War on Coal Act.” But the bill has little to do with coal, and everything to do with repeating the House’s already failed attempts to roll back a host of health and environmental safeguards.  The House has already voted over 300 times to block such standards, weaken our laws, and even stop basic research. Now the most egregious provisions of those previous bills have been repackaged in H.R. 3409 in what the Democratic staff of the Energy and Commerce Committee calls the “single worst anti-environmental bill to be considered in the House.”

I won’t attempt a thorough critique of H.R. 3409 here; suffice it to say that it would make H.R. 6172 completely redundant. That’s because H.R. 3409 wouldn’t just block a specific carbon pollution standard for power plants, it would block all carbon pollution standards by repealing EPA’s science-based finding that greenhouse gases endangers public health and the environment. Among other things, that means eliminating EPA’s clean car standards, which the auto industry has embraced.  The House Leadership’s willingness to sow uncertainty in the marketplace, cost consumers money at the pump, and increase our dependence on oil shows just how little regard they really have for the economy.   

I used to be shocked by such brazen, willful ignorance, but unfortunately it has become commonplace for the current House majority.

For good measure H.R. 3409 would also nullify EPA’s mercury and air toxics standards, weaken the Clean Water Act, and block efforts to reduce damage from coal mining and ensure that coal ash is disposed of safely.

At tomorrow’s hearing the witnesses defending clean air will be out-numbered by the witnesses defending the fossil fuel industry 5-to-2. But that doesn’t reflect the larger public. More than 3 million Americans have raised their voices in comments to support EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standard for power plants—far more comments than EPA has received on any previous proposal.  And more than 60 percent of Americans support EPA’s setting carbon pollution standards according to a recent bipartisan poll conducted for the American Lung Association.

Given how out of touch the House leadership is, it’s no wonder that Congress has only a 13 percent approval rating.

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