A rare breath of fresh air in US politics

Environmental issues could take centre stage in US election as regulations to curb emissions draw heat from Republicans.

Power plant
 Senator James Inhofe called new environmental plans  ‘part of EPA’s job-killing regulatory agenda’ [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, environmentalists in the US were optimistic about the future with a president who had made climate change and energy innovation a prominent part of his campaign platform.

But achieving success on any environmental issue has proved difficult, particularly after climate change legislation to cap and then reduce US greenhouse gas emissions died in the Senate in 2010. And the odds multiplied once Republicans took charge of the US House of Representatives.

As of late, the primary target has been the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Republican members of congress repeatedly targeted EPA this past year with legislation aimed at reducing its regulatory capabilities, citing the need for budget cuts, while Obama administration angered environmentalists in the fall after halting planned EPA rules to cut smog emissions.

Despite that there have been a few green wins, not least of which is the recently announced historic standards on reducing toxic air pollution from power plants – a perfect illustration of the issues at the heart of an increasingly partisan debate over both securing and advancing the country’s energy future while protecting the health of people and the environment.

Power plant standards

The expanded ability of corporations to spend money on political campaigns… means that big oil, coal and other energy companies will play a much larger role in this presidential race.”

– Daniel Weiss, Director of Climate Strategy, Centre for American Progress

The standards, more than 20 years in the making, set the first emission limits for coal and oil-fuelled power plants on toxins and pollutants such as arsenic, cyanide and, perhaps most crucially, mercury. Power plants are the main emitters in the US of acid gases and mercury, a neurotoxin that is released into the air when coal is burned and is particularly harmful to children and pregnant women.

According to the agency, the new standards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma annually. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said they “will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance”.

The regulations are expected to cost utilities around $9.6bn annually, a price tag that has drawn the ire of Republicans and the utilities industry who argue that the costs of implementing new technology will be too expensive and could force power plants to close.

“Sadly, this rule isn’t about public health,” said James Inhofe, a Republican Senator who has stated that global warming is in fact a huge hoax. “It is a thinly veiled electricity tax that continues the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy and is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA’s job-killing regulatory agenda.”

Republicans have already announced plans to introduce legislation to overturn the new standards and are likely to continue going after EPA when it issues new regulations later in the year to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Inhofe’s words are not taken lightly after a year that saw an unprecedented amount of legislation targeting EPA and its regulatory authority.

‘Job killers’

EPA and environmentalists contend that the new rules will actually create thousands of new jobs through installing better pollution control technology. But Republicans argue that the costs of upgrading will be passed down to consumers and that, because plants that can’t comply will be forced to close, environmental regulation equates to “job-killing”.

Economic slaughter is not something anyone wants to be seen as responsible for, especially in a presidential election year. And most of the Republican candidates are representative of a new attitude that is much more hostile than past previous ones toward environmental rules.

Michele Bachmann says EPA should be barred from regulating greenhouse gases and Ron Paul wants to eliminate the agency. Jon Huntsman called for an end to EPA’s “regulatory reign of terror” and Rick Perry wants the “jobs cemetery of an agency” to be dismantled in its current form. Mitt Romney believes EPA is out to “crush the private enterprise system” and Newt Gingrich suggested the “job-killing regulatory engine” be converted into the “Environmental Solutions Agency”, devoted to research, not regulation.

Some analysts say another factor that could explain the stronger role of the environment in the 2012 campaign is the US Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 on campaign financing from corporations.

“The expanded ability of corporations to spend money on political campaigns under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision means that big oil, coal and other energy companies will play a much larger role in this presidential race,” said Daniel Weiss, Director of Climate Strategy at the Washington, DC-based Centre for American Progress. “It will likely spend its dollars against those government officials – including President Obama – who dared to require their companies to reduce their pollution or surrender their tax breaks.”

Utilities were split on the regulations with those that have already installed equipment supporting EPA, and coal-reliant utilities with old plants and uncontrolled emissions – such as Southern Co and American Electric Power – warning that the regulations were too expensive and they would have to shut plants down. While politicians and industry have focused on the economic costs from the new standards, others argue they might be the push needed to move towards sustainable sources of energy.

“The new air toxics reductions for coal fired power plants will force utilities to ‘internalise’ the cost of these pollutants for the first time,” Weiss said. “This will make clean renewable energy sources more economically competitive because they will no longer have to compete against a high pollution fuel whose costs are subsidised by the public in the form of health consequences to pollution exposure.”

Striking a balance

“… Mercury is linked to brain damage, so that needs to be calculated. And then what is the cost from water pollution, land pollution?”

– Wahleah Johns, clean energy advocate

For advocates of clean energy, like Wahleah Johns, the hope is that the new regulations will encourage local and state governments to more aggressively pursue renewable energy sources. “We have an economy that’s too dependent on coal, so transition is key,” said Johns, a member of Black Mesa Water Coalition, an Arizona-based environmental justice group that works primarily within indigenous Navajo communities and is developing a solar energy project in some parts of the state.

“Any economy with a dependency needs to prepare,” said Johns. “We need to build in other economies that are sustainable.”

Johns’ group works in areas powered by the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fuelled power plant in Arizona that supplies power to three states and is a prime example of the stakes at play in the debate on environmental regulation. The plant is a key energy supplier in the region and provides jobs to local communities, but it is decades-old and has tarnished the air and land that surrounds it.

“We’ve had these type of jobs in our backyard for over 40 years, our people have benefitted from these jobs. So it makes it challenging to advocate transition,” said Johns. “But what we need to do is calculate the human health cost of coal. Mercury is linked to brain damage, so that needs to be calculated. And then what is the cost from water pollution, land pollution?”

The main phrase Republicans have associated environmental regulation with is “job-killing”, but these criticisms do not take into account the costs and consequences of not pushing power plants to clean up their act. EPA estimates the new standards could save as much as $90bn in health costs annually.

In the new year, striking a fair balance between energy, health and the environment will be one of the United States’ thorniest political thickets.

Source: Al Jazeera