The fuzzy economics of environmental protection

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Though much ink has recently been spilled in Pennsylvania weighing the economic benefits of natural gas drilling versus the costs to community health and water quality, air pollution has long been among the largest and most chronic threats to Pennsylvanians’ health and environmental quality.

Both debates, however, are fundamentally skewed by the same problem: the simplistic way we measure value in our economy.

EPA announces new regional emissions standards

The EPA took a significant step toward improving regional air quality last week with the announcement of new regulations on power plant emissions. The new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is the first of many proposed environmental regulations to be rolled out by the EPA in the coming months, despite increasingly hostile attacks from Republican members of Congress and deeply entrenched special interest groups.

The “transport rule,” as it is now commonly called, aims to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that cross state borders, contributing to acid rain, high levels of ozone and smog, and lake and stream acidification in many downwind states across the Midwest and East Coast.

According to EPA estimates, the new rule would contribute significant economic benefits to the region in the form of lower healthcare costs from heart attacks and respiratory illnesses like asthma, as well as a dramatic decrease in missed work days due to illness. That is on top of an estimated 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths that would be avoided by 2014. These figures are not seen as economically compelling to some because they are not reflected in the short-term profits of any corporation; they are social benefits that accrue over time — something our economy is not good at measuring and appreciating.</p

Pittsburgh has long suffered from having some of the nation’s worst air quality, though that has improved dramatically from the days of midday street lamps when soot blocked out the sun. The Pittsburgh City Council recently gave preliminary approval to another air quality measure that would require some diesel engines to be fitted with filters. However, much of Pittsburgh’s air quality woes can be traced to coal-burning plants up the Ohio River valley — emissions that would now be regulated by E.P.A.

As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.”

Environmental protection: Cost or investment?

Yet that is exactly what many in the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in Congress are lobbying hard to protect: their “freedom” to continue spewing millions of tons of toxic chemicals from ancient coal-burning power plants, many of which were built in the 1950s. Their argument: the proposed regulations are too costly and don’t give them enough time to install the necessary clean technology (never mind that is has been available for years). And, of course, the regulations will kill jobs by shutting down old plants (never mind that they may actually create jobs for those manufacturing and installing the new technology). The health and labor costs to communities downwind of these plants have never been borne by the plant operators, as success in the energy sector, like many parts of the economy, is entirely dependent on externalizing as many costs as possible.

Some within the coal and power industries admit that most plant operators have been aware of pending regulations for years and have had plenty of time to prepare for them. According to Michael Bradley of Clean Energy Group, who represents 20 percent of the nation’s energy producers, “Sixty percent of the base-load coal capacity already has scrubbers for [sulfur dioxide] and advances in [nitrogen oxide] controls.” The cost to industry from the new transport rule is thus minimal for all but the oldest and dirtiest coal plants.

Despite the many compelling economic and community health reasons to support this and other regulations on pollution and waste, there is a fundamental flaw in the way our economy assigns value to such measures. As long as polluting industries can continue to externalize the costs of their emissions while raking in enormous profits, their access to the levers of power will ensure that environmental protection will be seen as a burdensome cost rather than a sound investment in ecological and economic health.

Until our measures of economic health go beyond short-term maximization of profits to include more comprehensive measures of environmental quality and resource quantity — factors that all businesses are fundamentally dependent on — the EPA will always be fighting an uphill battle. Certainly that has been the case with EPA’s attempts to regulate global warming emissions absent federal legislation.

At least these new regulations deal with something even polluters can’t deny: humans must breathe clean air.