Another Heaping Helping of "Chicken Little" from Power Plant Polluters

Those who represent companies that oppose efforts to protect public health by reducing pollution have a record of arguing that doing so will cause the sky to fall.

You don't have to take my word for it. Consider this refreshingly candid statement by one industry executive: John McManus, vice president of environmental services at American Electric Power Co, who told E&E News this week (subscription required) that:

"I come from a part of the industry that may have, once or twice in the past, claimed the sky is falling, and it hasn't fallen..."

But that was then, this is now. Now, facing new standards to protect public health from toxic air and carbon pollution, McManus and maintains that

"We really don't think there's enough time to get all the controls built."

See this time, polluters opposed to clean air standards are telling the truth. And so McManus actually finished his comment about having previously predicted wrongly that the sky would fall with this rich addition:

"But that doesn't mean it isn't going to fall this time."

Uh-huh. And will someone let Charlie Brown know that Lucy has a football for him to kick?

This all came up in response to a new report that finds that pollution from coal-fired power plants that have failed to install pollution controls are costing businesses in affected states nearly $6 billion annually – about $17 million per day - because of higher labor and insurance costs, lost work days, and lost productivity. The report, “Expensive Neighbors: The Hidden Cost of Harmful Pollution to Downwind Employers and Businesses,” was authored by Charles J. Cicchetti, Ph.D, a Senior Advisor to Navigant Consulting, Inc and released by Pennsylvania's Clean Air Council and other groups.

These are just some of the kinds of costs that would be reduced by tighter standards for coal and other plants. But some are not so happy about reducing life-threatening air pollution, even though doing so has prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of illnesses and new standards would prevent even more. A lot of companies have been very busy lobbying Congress to shut down EPA efforts to reduce pollution.

The Wall Street Journal harrumphed about the issue in an editorial last month, saying:

“The electric industry in particular is being forced to choose between continuing to operate and facing major capital expenditures to meet the increasingly strict burden, or else shutting down and building replacements that use more expensive sources like natural gas.” 

But at least one set of utility CEO's called the Journal out on its Chicken Little stance. In a letter back to the paper, CEOs from PG&E, Calpine, NextEra Energy, Public Service Enterprise Group, National Grid USA, Exelon Corp, Constellation Energy Group and Austin Energy took the Journal to task, writing that:

“To suggest that plants are retiring because of the EPA's regulations fails to recognize that lower power prices and depressed demand are the primary retirement drivers. The units retiring are generally small, old and inefficient. These retirements are long overdue.

Contrary to the claims that the EPA's agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies' experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.”

The companies that wrote this include some that do own coal-powered generation plants, but opted not to wait until the last minute to anticipate the pollution clean-up that would be required. As they say in their letter:

“The electric sector has known that these rules were coming. Many companies, including ours, have already invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants. For over a decade, companies have recognized that the industry would need to install controls to comply with the act's air toxicity requirements, and the technology exists to cost effectively control such emissions, including mercury and acid gases.”

Clearly the companies responsible for reducing pollution have options other than clucking about it until the last minute and then running to Congress to rollback the Clean Air Act. We need to insist that they invest in ways to reduce the public health threat they pose, rather than investing in ways to get Congress to block the EPA.