Hyperbole & Histrionics: 4 Senators Say Mercury & Toxics Standards Will Cause Depression-Era Deprivation

Four more conservative Republican Senators have announced they will vote tomorrow to abolish Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that will sharply reduce power plant mercury and lead pollution that poisons the brains of children and the unborn.

Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) – all doctors of one kind or another in former jobs – are vowing to vote to eliminate health safeguards that will avoid [pdf] up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year. These tremendous benefits translate to [pdf] up to $90 billion in annual benefits for Americans, delivering up to $9 in benefits for every $1 in industry compliance costs.

And how do these Senator-doctors justify eliminating health safeguards that will deliver so many benefits to the American people?

By arguing that allowing the health standards to take effect will produce a "result for public health [that] will be disastrous in ways not seen since the Great Depression."

Come again?

At the height of the Great Depression, U.S. unemployment reached nearly 23% in 1932. National Gross Domestic Product dropped by over 26% from 1929 to 1933. [Historical Statistics of the U.S. ($)].

Comparing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to the Great Depression is over-the-top and preposterous even by deteriorated Washington rhetorical standards. Indeed, the comparison is so extreme and exaggerated that the letter's other claims lose credibility in the company of this hyperbolic alarmism.

In sharp contrast to this apocalyptic rhetoric, EPA has done actual analyses projecting that [pdf] "implementing this rule will provide employment for tens of thousands of Americans, by supporting 46,000 short‐term construction jobs and 8,000 long‐term utility jobs." These are significant job benefits in addition to the tremendous annual health benefits highlighted above.

Even if one disagrees with these job projections, however, not even the health standards' most virulent industry critics have projected impacts in the same league as the Senators' Great Depression claim.

Explaining that they "come to this issue as medical doctors and would like to offer [their] 'second opinion,'" the Senators assert that "EPA’s regulatory regime will devastate communities that rely on affordable energy, children whose parents will lose their jobs, and the poor and elderly on fixed incomes that do not have the funds to pay for higher energy costs."

As proof for these alarmist predictions the Senators' letter provides . . . nothing. There is not one shred of factual evidence in the letter backing the charge that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will cause the claimed impacts, much less Depression-era health disasters.

The closest the letter comes to glancing factual evidence is when the Senators baldly assert – again with no citation or support whatsoever – that the clean air standards "will cause as much as 20 percent of the existing coal-fired power plant fleet to retire." It's little wonder that the Senators do not back this claim since factors unrelated to these standards are much bigger drivers for the announced and expected power plant retirements. And it remains hotly disputed whether this asserted level of retirements by existing coal units will occur at all.

As Sue Tierney with the respected Analysis Group has rightly noted in a report entitled Why Coal Plants Retire: Power Market Fundamentals as of 2012 [pdf]:

[R]ecent retirement announcements are part of a longer-term trend that has been affecting both existing coal plants and many proposals to build new ones. The sharp decline in natural gas prices, the rising cost of coal, and reduced demand for electricity are all contributing factors in the decisions to retire some of the country’s oldest coal-fired generating units. These trends started well before EPA issued its new air pollution rules. 

The Analysis Group's most recent report entitled The Positive Outlook for Cleaner Air and Reliable Electric Service [pdf] continues to emphasize the dominant influence on retirement decisions played by the price of natural gas: "[t]he outlook for sustained low gas prices is a key driver in retirement decisions."

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The Great Depression hyperbole makes clear how unreliable these Senators are as economists. And considering how many medical organizations (see below) oppose the reckless Senate vote to eliminate EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the 4 Senator-doctors' positions are extreme outliers within the medical community as well.

So what is this letter all about then? Just politicians struggling to justifiy irresponsible votes to eliminate important health safeguards for Americans.

Long after the Senate vote this week fails and the predicted economic disasters do not emerge, should we expect any public mea culpas from these Senators for their mistaken Great Depression alarmism?

Don't hold your breath.

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Partial list of health and medical organizations opposing the Senate Congressional Review Act vote to eliminate Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants:

American Academy of Pediatrics

American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation

American Association of Respiratory Care

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

American College of Preventive Medicine

American Heart Association

American Lung Association

American Nurses Association

American Public Health Association

American Thoracic Society

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

March of Dimes

National Association for Medical Direction of Respiratory Care

National Association of County and City Health Officials

National Home Oxygen Patients Association

Trust for America's Health