A Small Victory in the 'War on Coal'

NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built alon
NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on September 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, will be one of two plants in the region to be shut down, affecting 380 employees. The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration have been taking major steps to get coal-fired power plants into compliance with clean air regulations. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

While the main action in reducing air pollution and greenhouse gasses must be to focus on developing renewable energy, the elimination of coal as a source of energy remains an important environmental and economic goal. Although it is incorrect to say that the Obama administration is sponsoring a "war on coal," they should be. I recognize the importance of coal to the economies in Appalachia, but we need to begin the transition to a coal-free economy. The administration's "all of the above" energy non-strategy will take energy from any place they can get it. Fortunately, last week, the Supreme Court made it more difficult to get that energy from coal. According to a report filed by Reuters reporter Lawrence Hurley:

By a 6-2 vote, the court said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acted reasonably in requiring 28 states to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can lead to soot and smog. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the EPA rule a cost-effective way to allocate responsibility for emission reductions among upwind states, and that the EPA need not consider each state's proportionate responsibility for the emissions in question. The regulation in question is viewed by industry and conservative critics in Congress as part of what they call the Obama administration's "war on coal" because of the pollution controls it imposes primarily on coal plants.

If you want to know why the air you breathe in America is better than the air quality in places like China, you can thank the enlightened government officials who enacted and have implemented the U.S. Clean Air Act. That law now includes protection from air pollution generated by neighboring states, and also has defined greenhouse gasses as an air pollutant. The Supreme Court has now upheld EPA's authority over both greenhouse gases and interstate pollution transport. The process of regulation in the U.S. typically takes a decade or longer from start to finish, as suits and countersuits tie up rules in the courts. Eventually though, the rules get finalized and implementation begins. Even more significant, industry begins to see the handwriting on the wall, and for the coal industry, the message is becoming as clear as hopefully the air will become.

Of greater danger than any real or imagined war on coal is the war on environmental regulation that the extremists in Congress and on the lunatic right are pushing. Environmental law and regulation is as fundamental to our health as traffic lights are to safety on the roads. The anti-regulation zealots should take a field trip to parts of the rapidly developing world in Asia and Latin America. It's like a journey to the American environmental past: raw sewage, orange air, and toxic waste oozing into residential basements. One of America's great economic advantages is that we have outlawed many of the most flagrant forms of pollution. A clean environment attracts people and business. No one wants to move someplace where you can see the air. Most parts of this country have cleaner air, water and land than we had when EPA was established in 1970. Environmental regulation is an American success story. Deregulating environmental protection is like deregulating the rules on homicide.

It is important to get past the caricature of regulation as an unseeing, mindless bureaucratic power grab designed to "kill jobs." In the United States, regulation involves a long process of give and take as proposed rules are adjusted to minimize negative impacts. Sometimes that adjustment happens during a routine public comment period and sometimes it requires adjudication by the courts. The process is very time-consuming because there is an intensive effort to provide flexibility and time to adjust to new goals and new rules. Regulation is far from arbitrary, and in the United States is only permitted when the benefits vastly outweigh the costs.

In fact, the more convincing argument is that we give businesses and communities too much time to comply with national environmental laws. Let's examine the case of the recent Supreme Court decision. EPA's rules were trying to prevent air pollution created in one state from polluting the air in a state down wind. Imagine if you owned a home next door to a family that created a danger on their property that spread to yours. Wouldn't you expect the law to protect your family, health and property from your obnoxious neighbor? This is the step EPA took, which right-wing ideologues termed part of the President's "war on coal."

One of the great values of America's environmental statutes is that they set the expectation that people are entitled to clean air and water and a home free of toxics. In some respects, we have seen this reinforced with an overall focus on public and private health. These days people pay attention to what they eat, what they feed their children, and its impact on their health and the health of their family. America's First Lady is growing vegetables on the grounds of the White House. More and more people understand the virtues of exercise (even if they join a gym in January, only to stop showing up by March). Parents are concerned about their children being exposed to secondhand smoke and lead paint in public school buildings. All of us are aware of the impact of our environment on our health in a way we were not aware of it before the creation of the EPA in 1970.

The broad support for environmental rules continues, despite the ideological attack on it over the past decade. It persists because it comes from the ground up. People want to protect themselves and the health of their families and whether the threats to their health come from business, government, fast food, or neighbors, they expect the police and security function of government to provide this protection when needed. When the drinking water in West Virginia was poisoned by the actions of a poorly managed corporation, people in that state looked to government to protect them and punish the company that fouled their water. Unregulated capitalism may make a good theory, until lawless behavior makes it impossible for you to breathe, bathe, or take a drink of water.

It may well be that some jobs are lost when dirty industries are regulated, but some are also created when money is spent on the effort to purify our air, water and land. In many businesses, an anti-regulatory stance is almost a reflexive response to any effort to impose rules constraining corporate behavior. Like a ballplayer protesting the ruling of an umpire or referee, any effort to enforce the rules is a violation of "something". In the best-managed companies however, new rules can be seen as opportunities to modernize and prepare for the future. An energy company that depends on coal may well be living in the past. A free market that gives companies to freedom to poison people will not survive. If we want the benefits of entrepreneurship, competition and individual creativity, we need to accept the costs of rules that prevent harm to individuals and communities. That was the point the Supreme Court made in their recent decision. Some may see it as a war on coal; I see it as a war on poison.