Congress should stop subsidizing the 
utility industry with our children’s health

For the past four years, we have heard angry cries and even threats over the government bailouts for big banks, the auto industry and others during this economic downturn. Senators and representatives have lost their jobs over these bailouts. Yet Congress has been giving special breaks and what amounts to subsidies to the coal-fired utility industry for more than 20 years. In the Senate, a leading Republican is close to having the votes to keep bailing out the coal and utility industry by killing the first-ever regulation to deal with mercury pollution, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) — only it’s not taxpayer money but the health and life of our children that is being spent.

In August 2011, the nonpartisan research and analysis unit of Congress wrote that it has given special consideration to coal electric generation for more than 20 years. In fact, other industries rightly have been regulated to clean up their air pollution, including mercury, while coal-fired utilities have been given a free pass to keep polluting and harming our children. 

Many utilities continue fighting to delay installing pollution control in their plants, a good number of which are more than 40 years old. They continue to maximize their profits without investing or upgrading these aging relics whose cost has been amortized long ago. 

This would be a joke if life and health were not at risk. One in six babies are born with enough mercury in their tiny bodies to cause IQ loss, brain damage and a potential host of other health problems. According to Dr. Leonardo Trasande in a peer-reviewed medical publication in May 2011, the economic cost of such impacts was 
$5.1 billion in 2008. 

The largest domestic source for mercury remains coal-burning utilities. 

In addition to mercury, asthma continues to threaten life itself as 130,000 children and adults suffer from asthma attacks induced by particulates the MATS regulation would eliminate. All told, the health benefits from enforcing this standard would save a minimum of $40 billion per year and cost the average electric user around $6.00 per month, or $72 per year. Not poisoning 1 in 6 babies born in the United States is worth six bucks a month to me, and I believe most Americans feel the same.

Congress keeps bailing out utilities that simply refuse to invest in the future. And instead of investing in new technologies to make coal cleaner, the industry cries foul, keeps polluting, puts our children at risk and banks the profits. In June 2010, Bill Gates and other business leaders released “A Business Plan For America’s Energy Future.” They reported that the energy industry only invests 0.3 percent of its sales in research and development compared with the pharmaceutical companies, which reinvest almost 19 percent.  

What makes this so surprising is that many of those in Congress defending coal’s subsidies complained the loudest over other bailouts. Something seems amiss. Our children would certainly be healthier if the coal industry would pay all its costs instead of poisoning the bodies of our children with the help of our tax dollars.

According to one estimate, when you factor in costs from coal pollution such as effects on our health, it triples the total cost, making it much more expensive than cleaner sources like wind. It’s as if our neighbor tossed their trash into our yard, expected us to clean it up and then claimed how cheap trash removal is. 

Coal is not cheap. 

Those who benefit are just good at hiding the real costs inside our bodies.

Let’s stop the confusion and start telling the truth. Please tell the Senate to stop bailing out the coal-fired utility industry with our children’s health. 

I have been a registered Republican for almost 40 years. I believe in a market economy. But as a pastor I know all people sin. That’s why we need laws to protect unborn babies poisoned by mercury. They can’t speak for themselves. My prayer is this: Allow the 1990 Clean Air Act to be enforced without special considerations for the utility industry — it just hurts us all. 

Hescox is president of the Evangelical 
Environmental Network.