A couple weeks ago, The New York Times ran an editorial on the fight over acid rain. The point was pretty simple: “good legislation can deflect and even reverse an environmental disaster.”
In response, the NYT received a letter from Steve Miller, head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry front group. Most of it is spent bragging about how much money the industry has spent on pollution controls, neglecting to mention that the money was spent in response to federal regulations the industry fought (and continues to fight) tooth and nail. “When you passed a law that forced us to reduce pollution, we did it!” Yeah, great, you get a cookie.
The last paragraph, however, is particularly dense with illogic and deception, so it’s worth deconstructing:
The success of the Clean Air Act is a lesson in why Congress, not the E.P.A., should decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Good comprehensive federal legislation can provide flexibility to moderate energy price increases and incentives to develop advanced technologies. E.P.A. regulations cannot do this.
How does this reek of bad faith? Let us count the ways:
1. The coal industry has spent billions fighting attempts by Congress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now that the fight is over and climate legislation is dead for the foreseeable future, Big Coal’s commandant of agitprop is ready to wax eloquent on the need for congressional action. Rich!
If you wonder how this kind of self-evident BS can be delivered with a straight face, well, Miller’s had quite a bit of practice. He’s been running energy astroturf groups since 1992 and is largely responsible for coal’s pivot from open opposition to concern trolling — claiming to support some vague climate something while opposing every actual piece of legislation that comes along. (Read this memo he wrote in 2004 to a coal CEO, or this exposé from the Center for Public Integrity, to get a flavor of how he operates.)
2. The success of the Clean Air Act is peculiar grounds on which to argue against EPA action. The CAA is, after all, precisely what enables EPA action. A more sensible lesson to take from the acid rain fight is that EPA can use the CAA to reduce pollutants with social benefits wildly in excess of industry costs — in particular, at far lower cost than industry projects.
That’s the lesson Miller doesn’t want America to learn: every time industry predicts economic doom; every time the costs turn out lower than anyone predicted.
3. What gives businesses “incentives to develop advanced technologies”? Regulation can do it (“technology-forcing,” in the argot). Simple market competition can do it. Often the two work in concert — regulatory reform increases market competition by increasing information flows, reducing barriers to entry, or otherwise correcting market failures.
But of course that’s not what Miller’s talking about. He’s wants taxpayers to hand over their cash!
In other industries — industries that operate in actual markets rather than the Rube Goldberg system that is the U.S. utility sector — companies innovate because they have to. It’s the only way to remain competitive. So one way to spur technology development in the coal industry would be to remove the massive subsidy it receives by virtue of being able to pollute the atmosphere for free. On a more level playing field, with every electricity-generation source responsible for its own waste, coal would have to fight to come out ahead instead of relying on the largesse of politicians as it traditionally has.
That kind of incentive — the scary kind that comes from fair competition — isn’t what Miller wants. Far from it. What he wants is more corporate welfare: a subsidy on top of existing subsidies. He wants Big Coal to get paid to develop expensive sequestration technology and to be able to pollute for free until it’s developed. It’s breathtakingly shameless. Sadly, the public doesn’t know enough about electricity in this country to be able to see it for what it is.