When it comes to programs that promise to clean our air, there’s one thing you can count on: Every time safeguards are announced, industry screams that they will doom the American economy and hammer consumers’ wallets.
This is particularly true of coal and power companies, who have never met a clean air plan they didn’t lambast as a looming apocalypse. One of their favorite predictions is that cutting pollution will cause electricity prices to go through the roof.
Except for one fact that the coal industry and its allies in the Utah congressional delegation never mention: History tells us these doomsday predictions are always wrong.
When, early this month, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency unveiled the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions, the reactions were much the same as ever.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop said that the safeguards in the Clean Power Plan would “have a devastating impact on the lives of most hard-working Americans who already struggle to afford their energy bills.” Rep. Chris Stewart said, “the costs of this new regulation will be paid for by you and me in the form of increased power bills.”
Such predictions rarely come true. Following the Clean Air Act of 1970, electric utilities projected skyrocketing utility rates. Yet, in 1982, the Congressional Budget Office determined that the costs of beginning to clear up America’s polluted skies were in fact quite small.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush’s bill to reduce the acid rain that was harming lakes across America also fueled an industry outcry.
The utility trade group, the EEI, trumpeted a study which claimed that reducing dangerous emissions from coal-fired power plants would drive up electricity rates in 46 of the 48 lower states. Bills would skyrocket as much as 13.1 percent between 1990 and 2009, the group said.
In reality, as a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress showed, more than three-fourths of those states had lower electricity rates than the EEI predicted. And after full implementation of acid rain provisions, 32 states actually had lower electricity rates in 2009 than they did in 1990.
It’s also worth noting that the EPA’s acid rain program was enormously successful: acid rain levels have dropped 65 percent since 1976.
In light of this – and many, many other examples – the reaction to the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” seems a bit like déjà vu all over again.
Consider claims by the National Mining Association, which is running nationwide radio ads claiming that the Clean Power Plan will increase electric bills by 80 percent. The Washington Post’s “Fact-checker” columnist gave that claim “four Pinocchios” for assuming that states will exclusively choose the most expensive method of cutting carbon pollution (capture and storage) rather than more affordable methods like energy efficiency, renewable energy, and natural gas.
The irony of this doomsday mindset is its core assumption that American industry cannot adapt and innovate. We do American entrepreneurs and engineers a disservice when we assume they can’t “build a better widget” – in this case, a cleaner, safer, and affordable power supply. American ingenuity has, time and again, devised affordable solutions to environmental and public health problems.
The Clean Power Plan offers America an opportunity to begin the transition away from our most polluting fossil fuels and towards the energy efficient and renewable power technologies that Utahns and Americans want. As we debate how to get there, let’s not be distracted by unfounded claims that progress is impossible.
Christopher Thomas is the executive director of HEAL Utah.
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