Congressional Research Service Undermines Right-Wing Claims Of EPA “Train Wreck”

Reports by industry groups have warned of dire consequences from pending EPA limits on pollution from coal-fired power plants. In recent weeks, conservative media have promoted and in some cases even overstated these predictions of a “regulatory train wreck.” But according to a detailed analysis by the Congressional Research Service, many of these claims rely on unrealistic assumptions.

CRS assessed reports by the Edison Electric Institute, which concluded that new EPA regulations “would cause the unplanned retirement of” up to 18.8 percent of coal fired electric capacity by 2015, and by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which “concluded that the implementation of four EPA rules could result in a loss of up to 19% of fossil-fuel-fired steam capacity” by 2018. CRS concluded (emphasis added):

The EEI and other analyses discussed here generally predate EPA's actual proposals and reflect assumptions about stringency and timing (especially for implementation) that differ significantly from what EPA actually may propose or has promulgated. Some of the rules are expected to be expensive; costs of others are likely to be moderate or limited, or they are unknown at this point because a rule has not yet been proposed. Rules when actually proposed or issued may well differ enough that a plant operator's decision about investing in pollution controls or facility retirement will look entirely different from what these analyses project.

The primary impacts of many of the rules will largely be on coal-fired plants more than 40 years old that have not, until now, installed state-of-the-art pollution controls. Many of these plants are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged in the price of competing fuel--natural gas--continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.

CRS also points out that the “train wreck” warnings completely ignore the significant health benefits of more stringent clean air and water standards, which almost always outweigh the costs:

Frequently overlooked in analyses of EPA regulations are the benefits to public health and the environment that will occur, benefits that for the most part are difficult to monetize... The costs of the rules may be large, but, in most cases, the benefits are larger, especially estimated public health benefits. Neither the EEI nor the NERC report addresses benefits.

Calling on Republicans to hamstring the EPA, Steve Milloy wrote in a Washington Times op-ed that regulations are “intended to make it painfully expensive for utilities to continue burning coal for electricity generation” and claimed that “current emissions are not causing air-quality or public-health problems anywhere in America.”

Similarly, New York Post columnist Michael Walsh wrote that the EPA is trying to “force the shutdown of countless power plants across half the nation.” Walsh went on to baselessly claim that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule “could shutter up to a fifth of the nation's generating capacity.” An Investor's Business Daily editorial repeated this claim, saying that the rule “will likely result in the loss of a fifth of the nation's electricity-generating capacity.”

In fact, as CRS noted, the NERC estimate said “less than 1% of coal-fired capacity, and less than 0.3% of all EGU [electric generating units] capacity” will be retired as a result of the rule by 2015.

Hyperbolic warnings of a regulatory “train wreck” have also been perpetuated by Town Hall, the Daily Caller, and Freedom Works.

Big Government's Dan Riehl even compared EPA regulations to terrorism, saying: “While Osama bin Laden may have contemplated attacking America's train system before his demise, the Obama administration, particularly the E.P.A., have been orchestrating a train wreck of a different sort - one that would actually have devastating consequences for the well-being of Americans over a far longer period of time.”

UPDATE: Embellishing the right's “train wreck” talking points, Milton Wolf now claims in a Washington Times op-ed that EPA rules could dismantle one-fifth of the nation's “coal-mining capacity.”