A much anticipated report on new regulations for carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants drew the usual political arguments of environment versus economic growth.
But the real watershed event may be flying under the radar. For the first time, it seems, the government and significant portions of the public have accepted the idea that our use of energy produced by coal has a cost beyond what we have measured in the past.
Economists call the environmental damage caused by carbon emissions “externalities” because they are external costs not figured into the price of the product. In essence, the pollution emitted was getting a free ride so to speak on the lungs of the American people and others around the world.
The environmental and human health effects of carbon emissions subsidized our relatively cheap energy.
Of course, those who argue the new rules will only increase energy prices and stifle economic growth seem to be willing to continue to accept these external costs because they keep energy relatively cheap.
The Environmental Protection Agency now points to these costs as savings in the future as the new rules require reductions in carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels.
The EPA estimates the reductions will provide health and climate benefits of $50 billion to $90 billion by 2030 and prevent 3,000 to 6,000 premature deaths and 140,000 asthma attacks in children.
It’s always been easier to accept these costs because they’ve been hidden behind hundreds of health care cases and continents of dirty air. But now the science has advanced to show a strong connection.
The rules put out so far seem to take into account how different states might be affected. States that get 80 to 90 percent of their energy from coal will not automatically be losers. Even some opponents of the new rules have acknowledged this.
The new rules should not be viewed as some onerous new government policy with no relation to reality. They are simply reflecting the realization that carbon emissions are a very real cost that should be factored into the price of our energy.