Green Groups Demonstrate Their Unreasonableness with Response to EPA’s Coal Ash Rule

by William Yeatman on December 29, 2014

in Blog

Two Fridays ago, EPA promulgated a final regulation, pursuant to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”), that establishes first ever federal limits on the disposal of “coal combustion residuals” (i.e., byproducts of burning coal for power). Coal combustion residuals also are known as “coal ash.”

Environmentalists aren’t happy with the rule, having deemed it too lenient. In particular, they are disappointed because EPA subjected coal ash to RCRA Subpart D, rather than the draconian RCRA Subpart C. [Read all the details here; notably, the agency chose the less restrictive rule only after it endured an interagency smackdown].

Here’s NRDC’s press release on the rule:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s long-awaited rule on disposal of toxic ash from coal-burning power plants falls far short of what’s needed to protect the public and our waterways from the millions of tons of dangerous sludge that is produced annually, the Natural Resources Defense Council said today.

And here’s what Sierra Club had to say:

While EPA and the Obama Administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash, they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution.

According to the greens, then, EPA’s coal ash rule “falls far short” because it doesn’t “go far enough.”

Let’s now turn to how far the greens would go. During the White House regulatory review process, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs performed an informal cost-benefit analysis of Sierra Club/NRDC’s preferred regulatory option (i.e., subjecting coal ash to ultra-onerous RCRA Subpart C). Discounted at an annual rate of 3%, OIRA estimated that Subpart C regulation would “avert 0.5 cancer cases at a cost-per-life-saved of $59 billion.” (See page 10 of OIRA’s review summary). This cost-per-life saved, moreover, fails to account for the administrative burden, as the rule would increase by a factor of 65 the amount of waste subject to Subpart C’s regulatory regime. It also fails to account for the inimical impacts of such a rule on the significant coal ash recycling industry (estimated annual revenues: $5-10 billion).

Of course, saving lives at $59 billion a pop is plainly counterproductive. There are innumerable alternative policies that would further human well-being at a far superior cost-benefit ratio. Then again, the welfare effects of coal ash never was the point of the greens’ coal ash recommendations. Instead, their true motive is to make coal power cost prohibitive, and thereby move America “beyond coal.” [updated 6:29 pm: I should further explain. The greens’ RCRA recommendations have nothing to do with RCRA, and everything to do with: (1) a long history of demonizing industry in general, fossil fuels in particular, and coal in very particular; and (2) climate change. That’s fine and dandy–this is a free country, after all, and the green groups are even open about it (Sierra Club has a “Beyond Coal” campaign whose avowed purpose is to close coal power plants). Nonetheless, it’s a nakedly cynically approach to public policy.]

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