Columns » Ernest Dumas

EPA rules mean clean air, not fewer jobs

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The opening act is always shopworn and the ending is always a boring anticlimax, but the audience never fails to eat it up. It is the industry lobby's well-staged propaganda campaign against any new government effort to control, phase out or reform an activity that has proved harmful to the American people.

People are warned that the regulation will bring hardship, suffering and ruin, its only fruit being a bigger, meaner government that will make Barack Obama happy by taking away more personal freedoms.

This spring it is the campaign against the new regulations to lower carbon-dioxide and other dangerous greenhouses gases emitted principally by coal-burning power plants and boilers. The rules were issued by the Environmental Protection Agency but, as everyone knows, the important thing is that President Obama backs them. They've got to be bad, right?

After several states (not Arkansas) sued the EPA in the early Bush II years for refusing to take steps to control the greenhouses gases that were warming the planet and causing thousands of deaths and millions of illnesses annually, the Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that the federal Clean Air Act indeed required the EPA to do something to curb carbon dioxide and the other pollutants if scientific evidence indicated they were harmful. Bush's EPA had tarried on that and everything else by holding, like the rest of the administration, that the best government is one that doesn't function.

Candidate Obama in 2008 promised that his government would act, and the next year the EPA produced a massive report concluding that, yes, greenhouse gases endangered health and were the biggest factor in global warming.

The industry campaign, including commercials, orchestrated condemnations by politicians and massive election spending by the Koch brothers and organizations like Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth, started back then but picked up this spring with the anticipated rollout of the new EPA rules on power-plant emissions.

Arkansas is not the worst of the polluting states — they are mainly in the Midwest — but the worst in another way. While CO2 emissions have been going down in other states, we have actually increased our production of CO2 in recent years, thanks to American Electric Power's giant new coal-burning plant at McNab (Hempstead County), which went into production in spite of unanimous decisions from both of the state's (elected) appellate courts that it never got lawful approval from the state to build it.

When the EPA issued its draft rules this month, the entire Arkansas congressional delegation denounced them and vowed to fight to protect Arkansans from the joblessness, skyrocketing utility rates and economic decline that the coal industry and the chamber of commerce say are sure to come. It even gave Sen. Mark Pryor a chance to show his disregard again for Barack Obama.

No one talked about the consequences to people's health and the future of the planet.

Arkansas plants are puffing more than 32 billion tons of CO2 into the air annually along with hundreds of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds, which had sent asthma, lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease soaring when the coal-generation era began. Years ago, the EPA ended the growing threat of acid rain on forests from the Ohio Valley to the eastern seaboard by issuing tougher rules on sulfur and nitrogen emissions. But Arkansas did not force its coal-burning plants to install the units to eliminate poisonous flue-gas emissions. Back in 1974, when Arkansas Power and Light wanted to build its first coal plants, Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker insisted that they build scrubbers to reduce the sulfur and nitrogen emissions, but the Public Service Commission concluded that Arkansas's air probably would still be under the existing Clean Air Act ceilings without them.

Arkansas now hosts two of the dirtiest power plants in the nation. The power plant in Independence County is the 35th dirtiest, the one in Jefferson County 42nd.

You should ignore the scaremongering about soaring electric bills, business closings, blackouts and economic decline because the electric industry must reduce its reliance on coal by using cleaner Arkansas natural gas, converting to clean renewable power sources and/or improving household energy efficiency. California and a consortium of eastern states jumped the gun on the EPA a few years ago and forced the changes. The result: lower consumer power prices, faster economic growth, more jobs, better health. We'll eventually experience that in Arkansas, too, but it will not be a story.

After the bipartisan enactment of the Clean Air and Water Acts under Richard Nixon, every time the EPA adopted rules to control an environmental hazard, you heard the same cries. It happened each time Congress passed a law regulating some abuse, from occupational safety to consumer product safety to financial regulation to affordable health care. Cataclysm was predicted but when the good works became evident, like drastically reduced workplace deaths and injuries, it wasn't a story any longer. Government working and doing good is not a story. The papers and the politicians don't even take notice.

That's the last act of this play, too.

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