Clean Power Plan “Co-Benefits” Are as Insipid as the Rule’s Direct Benefits (i.e., the idiotic social cost of carbon)

by William Yeatman on May 4, 2015

A big problem for EPA in trying to defend its egregious Clean Power Plan is that the rule is being promulgated in the name of fighting climate change, but it won’t actually impact the climate.

As a result, the agency has had to resort to two bits of trickery in order to justify the rule’s exorbitant costs.

The first is known as the social cost of carbon. As has been persuasively argued by my colleague Marlo Lewis, the social cost of carbon is assumption-driven garbage. (See, e.g., this).

trickEPA’s second statistical misdirection, which is the subject of this post, is to claim that the rule would save thousands of lives by reducing conventional pollutants other than carbon dioxide, primarily ozone and fine particulate matter. Today, a group of public health professionals issued a press release trumpeting a study backing the EPA’s “co-benefit” claims regarding the Clean Power Plan.

In this post, my purpose is not to rebut the statistical analysis by which these “prevented deaths” were conjured. As Bjorn Lomborg smartly pointed out in his book Cool It, we could reduce untold emissions of air pollution, and save scores of thousands of lives, simply by reducing the speed limit everywhere to five miles per hour. Just because there are “co-benefits” attendant to any given policy doesn’t mean much in a vacuum.

Of course, the Clean Power Plan was not promulgated in a vacuum. Rather, the rule exists within a regulatory structure created by the Clean Air Act. Accordingly, my purpose in this brief post is to demonstrate that these “co-benefits” are a legal/regulatory sham.

Reading EPA’s “benefits” analysis for the Clean Power Plan, you would be left unaware that conventional pollutants are subject to regulation. This is far from the case. The foundational Clean Air Act regulatory program, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards [NAAQS], directly regulates ambient air concentrations of these “co-benefit” pollutants. By statute, EPA sets each NAAQS at a level that is designed to protect public health with a margin of safety to spare. In setting these NAAQS standards, EPA does not take costs into account—only public health.

To be clear, I’m going to repeat myself. The entire purpose of the NAAQS program is to regulate the conventional pollutants that account for the Clean Power Plan’s so-called “co-benefits.” Under the NAAQS program, EPA must regulate these conventional pollutants at a stringency that is beyond that which is requisite to protect public health. In so doing, the agency is not allowed to take into consideration costs.

In light of the NAAQS program, it’s absurd to claim, as does the EPA and the authors of today’s much-hyped study, that the obscure statutory provision behind the Clean Power Plan should now advance the purposes of an altogether different Clean Air Act program. Either the Clean Power Plan’s co-benefits are redundant, or EPA is conceding that the agency’s recently promulgated particulate matter NAAQS is illegally inadequate. In either case, EPA’s reasoning buckles under the weight of its own inconsistencies.

To the extent that the Clean Power Plan’s “co-benefits” suggest that the current NAAQS are inadequate, then the proper remedy, of course, is to revise the NAAQS standards.

And to the extent that the Clean Power Plan is redundant, it runs afoul of the Clean Air Act. Congress created the NAAQS program to give to the States the opportunity to craft their own sector-wide strategy to reduce conventional pollutants like ozone and fine particulate matter. The Clean Power Plan, by contrast, would achieve reductions in conventional pollution at the expense of only one sector of the economy—the power industry. In this fashion, the rule robs States of accountability, which is the primary purpose of the Clean Air Act’s aforementioned “cooperative federalism” regulatory structure.*

These legal and logical incongruities are the reason why the Clean Power Plan’s putative “co-benefits” are indicative of very little.

* This perhaps warrants explanation. Left to their own devices, a State could choose to design their NAAQS plan to their own specification. For example, a State could implement an inspection and maintenance program to reduce emissions from automobiles. Or it could adopt an energy efficiency program for factories. Or it could regulate leaf/trash burning. The key point is that the decision is left to the States. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, on the other hand, would force the States’ hand. It would compel the States to achieve conventional pollutant reductions in furtherance of the NAAQS solely from the electricity sector.

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