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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 4

Subject:

President Obama's Christmas Present to America

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Sat, 24 Dec 2011 01:15:46 -0500

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (117 lines)

President Obama's Christmas Present to America

By Kevin Drum
December 23, 2011
http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/12/president-obamas-christmas-present-america

Christmas is only a couple of days away, and this week
the Obama administration delivered a last-minute
Christmas present to all of us, one that's been 20 years
in the making. On Wednesday, following a tortured
history, the EPA finally released new standards that
sharply reduce the emissions of mercury and other
airborne toxins from power plants. David Roberts is
jubilant:

     This one is a Big Deal. It's worth lifting our
     heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to
     appreciate that history is being made. Finally
     controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance
     on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will
     save save tens of thousands of lives every year and
     prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and
     respiratory diseases. It will make America a more
     decent, just, and humane place to live.

The new standards for airborne toxins are expensive:
they'll cost upwards of $10 billion annually and will
require dozens of old coal-fired power plants to shut
down. The power industry, aided and abetted by the
conservative press, has spent years retailing horror
stories about blackouts all along the Eastern seaboard
as the new rules take effect, but this is,
unsurprisingly, little more than the usual doom-
mongering. Brad Plumer provides the reality:

     [An AP] survey found that the coal plants set to be
     mothballed are mostly ancient - the average age was
     51 - and largely run without modern-day pollution
     controls, as many of them were grandfathered in
     under the Clean Air Act. What's more, many of these
     plants were slated for retirement in the coming
     years regardless of what the EPA did, thanks to
     state air-quality rules, rising coal prices, and
     the influx of cheap natural gas. "In the AP's
     survey," she writes, "not a single plant operator
     said the EPA rules were solely to blame for a
     closure, although some said it left them with no
     other choice."

Crucially, none of the operators contacted by the AP
seemed to think that huge swaths of America were on the
verge of losing power, as Jon Huntsman claimed. An
official from the North American Reliability Corporation
put it this way: "We know there will be some challenges.
But we don't think the lights are going to turn off
because of this issue." This jibes with an Edison
Electric Institute study, as well as a Department of
Energy study (which focused on worst-case scenarios), a
study from M.J. Bradley & Associates, and the EPA's own
modeling (PDF). Utilities will manage to keep the power
running, in part by switching to natural gas, as plenty
of gas plants currently operate well below capacity.

So that's the downside: $10 billion annually in costs
and a difficult but manageable shutdown of obsolete
power plants. And the upsides are enormous. Here's the
EPA's estimate:

The total health and economic benefits of this standard
are estimated to be as much as $90 billion
annually....Combined, the two rules are estimated to
prevent up to 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma
attacks among children, 24,500 emergency room visits and
hospital admissions. The two programs are an investment
in public health that will provide a total of up to $380
billion in return to American families in the form of
longer, healthier lives and reduced health care costs.

Much of this is due to reductions in particulate matter,
not mercury, which suggests that, if anything, the EPA
may be underestimating the benefits of the new rules. As
Michael Livermore points out, mercury is a dangerous
neurotoxin for small children, and the EPA's analysis of
that danger is limited to quantifying lost future
earnings due to lower IQs. But even a grinch wouldn't
pretend that the cost of this kind of neurological
damage is limited to lower wages. "There are," says
Livermore, "also risks of cognitive and social defects,
negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart
attacks that are not quantified."

Those of us on the left have had plenty of opportunity
to be disappointed with politics in general and with
President Obama in particular over the past year. But
although I think Dave Roberts exaggerates a bit
comparing this rule to getting rid of lead in gasoline,
he's right that it's a huge positive step for our
country's health, and one that's long, long overdue.
Merry Christmas, everyone.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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