Peter Bearse - Protecting Human Life From Coal-Plant Air Pollution: Mitt Romney's Got It Wrong

The centerpiece of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent Fosters op edit is his attack on air pollution regulations under the Clean Air Act.  He claims that cleaning up power plant air pollution would cost jobs and damage the economy. Candidate Romney gets away with these claims by looking only at compliance costs. He ignores benefits, particularly the benefit of the human lives saved by cleaner air.

Volumes of robustly peer-reviewed analysis show that cleaning up air pollution creates jobs. Not only does it not retard economic growth, it helps to promote it. Above all, clean air saves lives. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has reduced smog and air particulate pollution by more than 60 percent while the economy [real GDP in 2005 dollars] has more than tripled. Since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, electricity production is up by 33 percent. Electric rates are down by 10 percent. 

As required by law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted two major studies of the costs and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 as amended. According to Alan Krupnick, former senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, “[t]hese studies are probably the most intensive and expensive cost-benefit analyses ever done at the agency.” The first CAA cost/benefit study found that benefits, including improved worker productivity, increased agricultural yields, and reduced mortality and illness, exceeded regulatory and compliance costs by a ratio of 42:1! This represents a $22 trillion net gain to the US economy over the period 1970-1990.

The second study examined the 1990 “acid rain” amendment to the CAA. It found that, over the past twenty years, estimated benefits exceed costs by 4:1! This yields an additional net gain of over $500 billion dollars. Over this period, our economy grew by over 60 percent while emissions of six major air pollutants dropped by over 40 percent.[1]

Has the Clean Air Act adversely affected U.S. jobs? NO; rather, the opposite. According to another independent report prepared for the EPA, the CAA has spurred innovation and made the U.S. a global leader in pollution control technology. This induced a gain of nearly 2 million direct and indirect jobs over the period 1977-2002. Many of new jobs involve manufacture and export of pollution control technology to Asian markets.

But our air is still not clean enough. U.S. coal-fired power plants alone are still releasing air pollution causing $53 billion in economic damages annually.[2] This amounts to one-quarter of the total of such damages afflicting the entire US economy -- overwhelmingly the single largest cause. Due to a massive loophole in the Clean Air Act, the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants have never been required to install scrubbers. Thus, they continue to spew soot, smog, mercury, and other toxic chemicals into our air. This is why the EPA, after years of delay, is finally readying new standards for these pollutants – and why the coal industry and its political supporters continue to cry foul even as they continue to emit foul crap into our air.

The lion’s share of the economic benefits of cleaning up dirty coal plants would come in the form of reduced early mortality among young children and the elderly. Perhaps candidate Romney is arguing that we should ignore the lost and shortened lives caused by dirty coal plants.  But if the life involved was you, your child, spouse, parent, or close friend, the high value of cleaner air is instantly clear. Protecting lives is why voters support the new Clean Air Act regulations by 3 to 1, even in these tough economic times.

Most troubling to me as a pro-life Republican is why so many Republican candidates for President, including candidate Romney, seem to value the human lives taken by coal-plant air pollution at zero. If, instead, they honored their words and valued human lives as price-less, then the benefit-cost ratios would be even more huge than those reported earlier.______________________________________________________________________

Peter Bearse, Ph.D., International Consulting Economist, is a resident of N. Hampton with an office in Danville. He was an independent-conservative Republican candidate for Congress in the Republican in Republican primary race of 2010 who has not endorsed any Republican candidate for President.

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Acknowledgement: My colleague Jim Rubens of the Union of Concerned Scientists originally brought this matter to my attention. We discussed a draft of this piece over the phone.


[1] “The Clean Air Act’s Economic Benefits: Past, Present & Future.” Washington, D.C.: Small Business Majority and The Main Street Alliance (Oct., 2010).

[2] Muller, Nicholas Z., Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. 2011. "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy." American Economic Review, 101(5): 1649–75.