Right-Wing Media Declare Victory As Court Blocks Clean Air Rule

Blog ››› ››› MAX GREENBERG

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down an EPA rule intended to curb power plant emissions carrying pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) downwind across state lines on the basis that it overstepped the EPA's statutory authority under the Clean Air Act. Although the court made clear that its decision was not a comment on the "policy merits" of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which was put in place to address public health concerns, the right-wing media immediately mobilized to proclaim it "a major blow" against environmental regulations and what they claim is the Obama administration's "war on coal."

The right-wing reaction to the decision was just the latest chapter in a years-long campaign by conservative media to sow fear about the economic impact of EPA pollution controls while downplaying or denying their health benefits. A Wall Street Journal editorial claimed the "flawed rule" is part of the EPA's "regulatory war" on coal plants, and The Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll called it "just one of many costly regulations currently in the pipeline."

RedState blogger Daniel Horowitz called the decision "a big victory" while Fox Nation ran a story from The Hill under the headline "Obama EPA Whacked Upside Its Head."

Horowitz also claimed the rule was part of "Obama's inexorable war on American energy [and] consumers." In a similar vein, a Washington Times editorial called the CSAPR "one of the EPA's most insidious schemes to shut down affordable power generation," and referred to "an all-out war on affordable energy."

But the conservative media have grossly exaggerated the effect of the CSAPR on consumers. According to the EPA, its "effect on prices for specific regions or states may vary, [but] they are well within the range of normal electricity price fluctuations." A Government Accountability Office analysis of the EPA's data estimated a national average retail electricity price increase of just 0.8% as a result of CSAPR. And a report by Resources For The Future found that neither CSAPR or the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) would "create the shock to the electricity system that some worry would lead to reliability problems."

Conservative media reports on the decision also minimized or ignored the CSAPR's stated intent -- to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths and illnesses -- and even falsely implied that the court's decision undermined the basis for regulating pollution itself. The EPA estimated that the rule would help avoid between 13,000 and 34,000 premature deaths per year and bear "$120 to $280 billion in annual health and welfare benefits in 2014, which far outweigh the estimated annual costs of CSAPR of $800 million in 2014, along with the roughly $1.6 billion per year in capital investments already under way as a result of CAIR."

An analysis from Columbia University and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies expanded on those numbers and found that CSAPR and a suite of five other EPA pollution-reduction measures would yield "economic, environmental and health benefits [that] amount to well over $1 trillion." But the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Examiner didn't mention the intended health benefits of the rule, with the Journal saying only that the rule would cause states to "fail federal air quality tests."

CSAPR was set to replace the Bush-era Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which was found to have "more than several fatal flaws" in a 2008 decision by the same D.C. Circuit court. CAIR will remain in effect until the EPA decides whether or not to appeal the ruling, which was sharply criticized in an "unusually blistering dissent" from Judge Judith Rogers.

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