The EPA's Clean Power Plan, impractical and unrealistic

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It is not unusual for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to overstate benefits, understate costs, make overly optimistic assumptions about technology and stretch the law to its limits. In the case of the Clean Power Plan announcement, the EPA has gone well beyond any limits of realism and credibility.

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This is demonstrated by the enormity of its emission reduction goal, the economic impact, the asserted health benefits and its interpretation of Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.

Although the EPA's most recent proposal only applies to power plants, it will be followed by one on ozone. For purposes of evaluating EPA intent, consider a 32 percent reduction in all carbon dioxide emissions from the 2005 levels by 2030, requiring that emissions in 2030 be no higher than 4.1 gigatons. Last year's level was 5.4 gigatons and in 2005 it was 6.1 gigatons. So, in 15 years, power plants and other covered facilities would have to reduce their emissions 1.3 gigatons. In the mid 2000s, Department of Energy (DOE) did a calculation of what was required to reduce emissions by one gigaton. Those calculations show why the president's goal is completely unrealistic. Here are some of the DOE numbers:

  • Build 136 nuclear power plants or 273 zero emission coal plants;
  • Replace 273 million 20 miles per gallon vehicles with 40 miles per gallon ones;
  • Install 270,000 wind turbines, which at the time was three times the total global installed capacity; or
  • Install 750 gigawatts of solar power, which was 125 times the installed capacity worldwide.

Any of these options or even one-quarter of them could not be put in place in just 15 years. It should be obvious that attempting any such initiatives would be completely impractical and wreck the economy.

National Economic Research Associates (NERA) analyzed the economic impact of the Clean Power Plan rule when the expected goal was 30 percent and the EPA saw a greater role for natural gas. NERA estimated the cost between 2017 and 2030 to be about $400 billion. Others have higher estimates. The lower NERA estimate is significantly higher than the EPA's estimate of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion. At a time when the economy appears to be on the track for a decade of low growth — under 3 percent — this regulation will cause substantial damage and represent a large electricity tax on low- and fixed-income citizens who spend a larger percentage of their income for electrical power.

Finally, the EPA justifies every clean air regulation with claims of reduced asthma and premature deaths. The numbers come from model calculations that have no basis in medical fact. Air quality has been steadily improving in spite of EPA claims that increases in carbon dioxide emissions will worsen it. The agency has never explained how asthma incidence can be increasing while air pollution is decreasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are 900,000 premature deaths annually. The EPA claims that its regulation will reduce the number between 2,700 and 6,600. That works out to be between .003 percent and 1 percent. There are no epidemiological techniques that have that kind of precision.

A few years ago, a former EPA scientist wrote an article titled "Confessions of a Computer Modeler." He concluded, "I realized that my work for the EPA wasn't that of a scientist, at least in the popular imagination of what a scientist does. It was more like that of a lawyer. My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client's position." His confession shows how EPA continually comes up with its theoretical health benefits.

In spite of two Supreme Court decisions that ruled against the EPA's interpretations of Clean Air Act provisions, the agency has done it once again. Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe in congressional testimony on the Clean Power Plan rule in March stated clearly that the "EPA is attempting an unconstitutional trifecta: usurping the prerogatives of the states, Congress and the federal courts — all at once." He then went further and stated that "burning the Constitution of the United States, about which I care deeply, cannot be a part of our national energy policy." Ultimately, the Supreme Court will make the final decision on the most far-reaching clean air regulation ever proposed.

The president and the EPA would do well to remember President John Adams's admonition: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." The facts and the evidence do not support this regulation.

This piece has been revised.

O'Keefe is CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute and president of Solutions Consulting, Inc.

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