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Last week, Tennessee’s public utility regulator, Kenneth Hill, argued in the Wall Street Journal that states should boycott the EPA’s Clean Coal Plan, forcing the feds themselves to take full responsibility for whatever obligations they impose. I examine that argument and other aspects of the proposed program in my new column for Defining Ideas, and find the entire project wanting:
EPA [Administrator Gina] McCarthy praises the flexibility of her plans, by noting that the EPA “can look at stringency, timing, phasing-in, glide path,” and a lot else to make sure that grid reliability is not impaired. But therein lies part of the problem, for the question is just how much discretion should the EPA have in making decisions that could cost individual states and firms billions, especially since it appears that its direct regulatory authority to implement on its own only direct regulation of emissions from designated facilities. It looks therefore that the threat of very heavy direct cuts in output could be used to lever states to make alterations in local policy that the EPA is powerless to impose under its own authority. At this point, the crafty game of extending powers through threats does give rise to a serious constitutional challenge, as the EPA seeks to implement indirectly measures that it could not impose directly.
These difficulties are further compounded by the way in which the EPA sets its targets for different states, which, as Hill notes, could vary from as little as 11 percent in North Dakota to 72 percent in Washington. The huge differences are based on various local factors that relate to the ability to control carbon emissions. But the whole approach has to be taken with a grain of salt, given that the harm from carbon dioxide (which is itself the subject of serious scientific dispute, well summarized by Professor Judith Curry) in no way depends on the place from which it enters into the atmosphere, so that there is no issue of singling out dirty targets to clean up traditional forms of pollution in, say, high-sulfur areas.
Indeed, one great tragedy of this entire unfortunate episode is that it pushes further down the road any coherent way to deal with all forms of pollution. As I have previously argued, the best way to attack this problem is to direct attention to pollution outputs and not to elusive … standards under which it is not possible to ask the simple question of whether any particular reduction in pollution output is cost-effective. There could be a far more rapid shift to efficient coal plants if the EPA did not erect consistent barriers to getting new coal plants into service.