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Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

States Sue to Block Smog-Pollution Rules to Help Home State Polluters Avoid Cleanup Costs

SOURCE: AP/File

The NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station in Thompsons, Texas. Texas, which had one of the worst air-quality years in its history in 2011, is one of 16 states opposing new pollution-reduction rules from the EPA.

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This article contains a correction.

Download a breakdown of coal and utility contributions to state governors and attorneys general (.xls)

This week, 14 states and numerous power companies that oppose new pollution-reduction rules must file their petitions with the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. In response to their initial suit, the court granted a motion to temporarily “stay,” or halt, the implementation of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, or smog pollution rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, promulgated last summer. These “good neighbor” pollution-reduction standards will require power plants to slash their sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution. These substances are the key ingredients in acid rain and smog, and they can travel hundreds of miles and contaminate other states.*

Once implemented the rule will annually save thousands of lives and prevent thousands of illnesses. Not surprisingly, the 14 states that sued EPA to block these rules include 6 of the 10 highest-polluting states in the country. And their governors and attorneys general, who decide whether to file a lawsuit to stop these safeguards, received a combined $4.5 million in campaign contributions from big utilities and coal companies that benefit from higher-pollution levels.

This column reviews the rule and its benefits as well as the efforts of utilities and coal companies to block it so they can avoid or postpone investments in cleanup technology. EPA analysis demonstrates that the law’s benefits to public health and the environment are much greater than its costs. These governors and attorneys general should support EPA’s efforts to protect the residents of their states and people downwind from premature death, asthma attacks, and other respiratory ailments instead of bending to the will of dirty-money donors.

These safeguards protect neighboring states

The EPA’s new rules will address a major public-health threat, annually curbing millions of pounds of air pollution from power plants that travel downwind and across the country. An interactive EPA map shows that pollution doesn’t stop at state borders, which is why the agency is acting to reduce air pollution that drifts across state lines.

EPA’s map helps viewers connect the dots. When the cursor is placed over Michigan, for example, one can see that emissions from six different states travel into the state, causing air-pollution readings above the national threshold level for public-health standards. The map also shows that pollution from Michigan travels all the way to Virginia, diminishing the latter’s air quality.

The EPA estimates these rules with produce significant air-quality benefits. By 2014 the rules will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels. Nitrogen oxide emissions will drop by 54 percent.

This improvement in air quality will result in $120 billion to $280 billion in annual benefits, including preventing up to 34,000 premature deaths and avoiding 858,000 other health problems annually that are linked to this pollution, as outlined in the table below.

When final safeguards were first announced in July 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson commented on how the law helps Americans:

No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses. These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air they breathe.

Many utilities have already begun to invest in pollution-control technologies, such as scrubbers, to comply with the Clean Air Interstate Rules, or CAIR, from 2005. It was struck down by federal court in 2008, so EPA revamped the measures that became the cross-state rules. These CAIR investments were an estimated $1.6 billion per year.

Compliance with the cross-state rules will cost $800 million annually beginning in 2014. Meanwhile, they will generate $120 billion to $280 billion in annual health benefits. According to EPA data the benefits from the improved rule are estimated to outweigh the costs by a ratio of at least 50-to-1, and as much as 115-to-1.

The aforementioned economic benefits are also a very conservative estimate because they do not include qualified estimates of other benefits from pollution reductions. For instance, lower pollution levels will increase agriculture crop and commercial forest yields, improve visibility in state and national parks, and increase protection from acid rain for sensitive ecosystems including Adirondack lakes, Appalachian streams, and coastal waters.

Stay means delay of health protection

The stay of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will last until at least April 13 when the states’ cases against the rule will be heard, but it could continue much longer. This setback unfortunately hinders vital reductions in air pollution from power plants, prolonging poor air quality for 240 million Americans in 28 eastern states.

A long list of plaintiffs sought this timeout on health protection, including 14 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Another 14 states affected by the rule are not trying to stop it. It’s no coincidence that the suing states are responsible for over half of the nation’s total sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution from power plants, which the law aims to reduce.

Big-polluting states are harping on costs associated with pollution-control technology rather than acknowledging the much greater economic benefits from public health that their own residents will enjoy as a result of the EPA rule. Smog and ozone pollution in the suing states—and the 14 other states that will be regulated by the EPA rule—are polluting communities hundreds of miles away as well as directly fouling their own backyards.

Not all 28 affected states oppose this rule, however. Three of the polluting states—Illinois, New York, and North Carolina—joined EPA in support of these safeguards. These three states emit over a billion pounds of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere each year, compared to the 7.5 billion pounds shot into the skies by the recalcitrant states.

These three states, along with the additional 11 states uninvolved in the litigation, are not undermining these new health safeguards. Instead, they plan to take responsibility for the pollution imposed on their residents and neighboring states.

Roughly half of the people in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of ozone-smog pollution. Based on American Lung Association rankings, 10 of the metropolitan areas with the highest particle pollution, and 9 of the metropolitan areas with the highest ozone-pollution levels reside in suing states.

Texas—the number one state for ozone pollution—had one of the worst air-quality years in its history for 2011, as high levels of pollution combined with record summer heat. Many of the state’s major metropolitan areas—including Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and even the small city of Waco—exceeded federal limits on ozone pollution last year, inflicting hazards to respiratory health on those who live there.

The Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia metropolitan area is ranked 14th for high levels of ozone pollution and the area houses 7.5 million people. These people, along with 50 percent of the country, live in areas where the air can be dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, and even to kill.

Dirty-money donors demand delays

Many of the utilities and coal companies responsible for this deadly air pollution oppose the cross-state rules because they make more money with uncontrolled pollution than by investing funds in cleanup equipment and practices.

These companies therefore donate campaign contributions to the governors and attorneys general in these states who can decide whether to file a lawsuit to stop these safeguards. A review of donations records by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that the governors and attorneys general in these 14 plaintiff states received over $4.5 million in campaign contributions from these companies during campaigns for their recent office. (see table) See attached spreadsheet for CAPAF analysis of state breakdown by government officials.

As the chart shows, high campaign contributions occur in litigating states with high pollution. The top three polluting states—Indiana, Ohio, and Texas—also had governors and attorneys general with three of the four highest campaign contributions from utilities and coal companies, racking up over $3 million. There’s little doubt that the leaders in these states support dismantling EPA regulations as money pours in from polluters each election season.

But instead of echoing their dirty donors in opposition to these vital health safeguards, these governors and attorneys general should support EPA’s efforts to protect the residents of their states and others from premature death, asthma attacks, and other respiratory ailments.

Pollution safeguards enjoy wide support

Voters from both political parties and in all regions of the country are singing a different tune than these states. They support the EPA’s regulatory authority to determine air-pollution standards, a poll from October 2011 reveals.

Ceres and the University of Massachusetts conducted a bipartisan poll to gauge voters’ feelings nationwide about EPA’s cross-state air-pollution and mercury-toxics rules. Two-thirds of the respondents (67 percent) oppose delayed implementation of the air-pollution rules and trust EPA, not politicians, to get the job done. This includes support from 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents surveyed.

States need to stand up to dirty utilities and protect public health

Every month of delay in the implementation of the cross-state good neighbor air-pollution rules will allow up to nearly 3,000 more unnecessary deaths. The judicial stay and lawsuit also prolongs uncertainty about the final rules (login required), which makes it harder and more expensive for power plants to comply with them. The sooner states’ legal challenges to these rules are settled, the sooner power plants can invest in pollution control and clean up the air.

States should emerge as leaders in this fight, choosing public health through improved air quality instead of succumbing to the influence from big utility and coal campaign cash. Americans certainly agree.

*Correction, February 10, 2012: An earlier version of this column incorrectly included Kentucky and Mississippi among the states suing to halt the cross-state air pollution rule. The authors regret the error.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy, Jackie Weidman is Special Assistant for Energy Policy, and Rebecca Leber is a Research Assistant for Think Progress at the Center for American Progress.

Download a breakdown of coal and utility contributions to state governors and attorneys general (.xls)

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