Will SCOTUS Ruling Allowing EPA To Regulate Carbon Emissions Protect Public Health?

Citizens Climate Lobby’s Mark Reynolds says Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for environmentalists, but Americans should be focused on implementing a carbon tax

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

This week, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the cross-state air pollution provision in the Clean Air Act. Many are hailing it as a major victory for public health, since the Environmental Protection Agency will be allowed to continue its enforcement of mandatory rules for cross-state air pollution emissions from factories and power plants. In 2011, President Obama used his regulatory authority bypassing the Senate and the House to expand the EPA’s power when it came to the inclusion of the provision. And in 2012, energy companies in certain states were up in arms about Obama’s so-called war on coal and sued the EPA to block the rule from taking effect, which is why the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. What may come as some surprise is that power plant emissions were not included in the Clean Air Act, which passed Congress and was signed into law under President Richard Nixon. Here’s what President Obama had to say when he talked about the policy back in June 2013 in his speech on climate change at Georgetown University.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here’s the thing: Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.

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DESVARIEUX: Here to discuss whether Americans really can breathe a bit easier after the Supreme Court decision is our guest Mark Reynolds. Mark is the executive director for Citizens Climate Lobby.

Thanks for joining us, Mark.

MARK REYNOLDS, EXEC. DIR., CITIZENS CLIMATE LOBBY: Thank you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Mark, I want to get your take on this, because many are hailing this as a great victory for environmentalists and those concerned with public health. What’s your take?

REYNOLDS: Well, my answer would be yes, and I think there’s some important background here. President Obama went to Congress on multiple occasions and said, bring me a market-based solution or my only option then is to use EPA authority. Congress did not act, and anybody who had any obligation to try and do something about keeping the air and water clean would have to applaud what Mr. Obama did, what the president did.

So then you have a challenge to it. And, you know, if that challenge succeeds and EPA authority does not hold up, then Congress, while it didn’t act this time, would have no motivation to act. So, yes, it’s good that EPA authority was upheld, but more important, what it says to Republicans in Congress: if you actually don’t believe in regulation, if you believe in a market-based solution, then offer one as an alternative to EPA authority. So it’s very good news.

DESVARIEUX: And speak of that market-based solution. What are you talking about specifically?

REYNOLDS: You know, amongst scientists that study climate change, there is between a 98 and 99 percent level of agreement that burning fossil fuels is creating climate change. Most people are aware of that.

What most people are unaware: that amongst economists, they believe that the most effective market-based solution is a carbon tax. It’s a straightforward fee on carbon, doesn’t require additional government bureaucracy, does not require new levels of government. You simply make fossil fuels begin to pay their cost to society. So right now, when people drive their car or they heat or cool their home, they’re paying an artificially low price, because there’s huge costs to society. People die because of burning fossil fuels. People go to the hospital. A huge percentage of our military budget protects oil interests. And then how much of the super storms do you want to include in the cost of carbon-based fuels? ‘Cause scientists started saying in the 1980s that we would see a greater frequency and severity of weather-related events. So what economists say is they prefer a carbon tax.

There is another market alternative called cap and trade, but cap and trade has failed four times the Senate. It is not doing a very good job in Europe. So I think almost everybody’s talking about how we would implement a carbon tax.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. And, Mark, the American Lung Association, which is one of the codefendants in this Supreme Court case, just issued their yearly report that says that almost 50 percent of Americans live with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Is this new ruling in the EPA’s favor going to change that?

REYNOLDS: A little tiny bit–not enough, but little tiny bit. You know, the reason, again, that economists and why we and people like Dr. James Hansen, who I think that most people consider to be our country’s leading climate scientist, why we prefer carbon taxes: in this case of EPA regulation, sure, there are some entities like coal-fired plants that are being regulated, whereas if you put a tax on the entire economy, everywhere where fossil fuel is burned begins to go down. You know, one of the things economists say is if you want less of something and you want it quickly, make it more expensive. And they constantly cite the example of cigarette smoking. Over half the people in our country used to smoke cigarettes, and now less than 20 percent do. Economists say, sure, education was part of that, but the single biggest factor in reducing smoking was making it more expensive.

DESVARIEUX: What about the EPA’s resources? Do you feel like they have enough resources to take on such massive oversight?

REYNOLDS: You know, that’s a really, really good question, and I’m not qualified on the EPA itself to be able to answer that. I know that some of EPA’s successes have been remarkable and that in many cases where they come in with what people call were going to be heavy-handed regulation, there’s been a $40 to $1 return in the benefit to the country. So it’s been a very, very successful entity. I think you would be better off getting someone actually from the EPA to answer that question.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. That’s fair enough.

Mark, I want to turn and talk about coal consumption. And we’re somewhere in the United States at about 22-30 percent, depending on the state it’s sometimes even higher. Will this ruling affect the bottom line for people in terms of raising the cost of energy? And how does this affect jobs in the industry?

REYNOLDS: You know, there’s been a lot of complaint from the coal industry that they’re losing jobs because of regulation. But the fact of the matter is the coal plants that have closed recently have closed because natural gas is simply beating them as a competitive–you know, they just can’t compete with natural gas anymore.

The number of coal jobs is dropping pretty dramatically in the country; at the same time, the number of wind and solar jobs are exploding. Five years ago, there was 184,000 jobs in the coal industry. Now there’s about 134,000. So the number of coal-related jobs was not that big anyway and is beginning to drop rapidly, whereas wind and solar are–the jobs in wind and solar are growing at 20 times the rate of total jobs in the U.S. So, yes, there are some coal jobs that are going to go away, but they’re going to be replaced mostly by higher-paying, longer-lasting jobs that have to do with the kind of energy that don’t dirty either the air or the water.

DESVARIEUX: After this ruling, what kind of pushback has already taken place from the coal industry, and even politicians?

REYNOLDS: You know, the usual. They’re going to try and sue more. They’re going to try and–you know, when the next set of plans roll out in the states and states are allowed to implement their individual plans, I’m sure there’ll be pushback in the states. And on a federal basis, certainly you hear some complaints from people like Mitch McConnell, but he should complain. Kentucky gets 100 percent of its electricity from coal, and I think anybody trying to protect their own state’s interests would object the way that he has.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Mark Reynolds, thank you so much for joining us.

REYNOLDS: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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