Environmental regulations Americans want

The Senate’s narrow failure on Tuesday to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is just the start of what will be a concerted effort to push back against President Obama’s energy and climate change agenda. Keystone XL will get another quick vote when the new Republican-controlled Congress convenes in January, and it will likely be followed by votes on legislation supporting other fossil fuel industry priorities, such as expansion of oil and gas exploration on federal land and expedited approval of liquefied natural gas export terminals.  

Also squarely in the GOP’s crosshairs are EPA climate regulations, particularly the Clean Power Plan, which the agency proposed last June to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Despite Republicans’ insistence that Americans are opposed to these regulations, the Obama Administration’s approach is precisely the one that most Americans want. We know this from extensive polling that we and others have conducted over the past decade that shows that Americans strongly prefer EPA regulations over other policy options, such as a carbon tax or a cap and trade program. 

{mosads}The high degree of public support for EPA action on climate change may seem counterintuitive. Indeed there is strong party polarization around the climate issue, and nearly every decision made by the EPA these days provokes a bitter partisan reaction. Support for EPA regulation in part reflects a general confidence that Americans have in the EPA, based on the agency’s historical success in cleaning up the nation’s air and water. More important is that fact that, unlike the politicians they elect, Americans are not particularly partisan in their opinions about energy and energy policy. 

Our research shows that Americans are pragmatic in their energy preferences, and that they view energy as consumers view any good. They base their preferences on the basic characteristics of the alternatives. And, when it comes to energy sources, two characteristics matter the most: Americans want energy to be less harmful to the environment and they want it to be less expensive. This pattern holds true whether the energy source in question is solar or nuclear, wind or coal, oil or natural gas. 

The fact that Americans view energy choices through this common lens is important. It suggests that technological advances that diminish environmental harms or reduce costs will make some energy sources more competitive in the economic marketplace, more acceptable to the public, and more palatable in the political realm. In essence, the public wants cheap but dirty energy options like coal and oil to be cleaner, and they want expensive but cleaner energy choices such as wind and solar power to be less expensive. And, when forced to choose, people are much more willing choose cleaner energy over cheaper energy. 

Americans’ support for EPA action to address climate change is buttressed by their belief that such regulation has multiple benefits. The public understands that regulating old, dirty coal-fired power plants can reduce both greenhouse gas emissions as well as emissions of conventional pollutants such as particulates and mercury. As a result, EPA regulation represents not just a partial policy response to climate change, but it offers reductions in local air and water pollution and the attendant health harms. Burning less coal for electricity generation means better air and water quality, and as a result fewer cases of asthma and other serious respiratory ailments, fewer cases of heart disease, and less contamination of drinking water supplies. 

EPA regulations are not the most economically efficient way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. A new law imposing a carbon tax or a cap and trade regime would achieve a similar goal at a much lower cost. But given Congress’ refusal to address climate change, EPA regulation is a second-best option, and they have strong support from a public that wants to see the use of coal reduced, both because of its carbon dioxide emissions and because burning less coal generates a number of other environmental and human health benefits that Americans value. For this reason, GOP efforts to limit EPA authority to address carbon emissions are likely to meet stiff resistance from the public, and Obama and the EPA can confidently fight back against these efforts, knowing that the public is on their side. 

Ansolabehere is professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University and Konisky is associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. They are authors of Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming (The MIT Press, 2014).

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