Politics and Protectionism

I think I know why Santa Claus punishes disobedient children by leaving lumps of coal in their stockings.

It’s been interesting to follow the response of Indiana coal interests and the politicians they influence to the EPA’s recent–and long overdue–efforts to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants.

It may surprise readers to know that there are currently no limits to the amount of carbon pollution a power plant can dump into our air. (It surprised me!)

The lack of any rules governing how much carbon an existing plant can spew has had significant consequences–not just for our climate, but for public health. An IU Medical School study calculated the public health cost of burning coal at five billion dollars annually, due to the effect on heart disease, lung disease, asthma and related respiratory disorders.

Recently, a speaker at Carnegie Mellon’s Distinguished Lecturer Series reported that air pollution kills as many people each year as smoking. (While smoking is riskier, only 20 percent of the population smokes. Everyone breathes.)

Indiana’s coal industries have long been accustomed to favorable treatment by state agencies, and their hysterical reaction to these overdue rules shows just how dependent they are on political protection from the forces of the free market, and on the indirect subsidies we taxpayers provide by allowing them to pollute with impunity.

Here’s an analogy: We don’t allow manufacturers to dump toxic waste into our rivers; we expect them to dispose of their effluent properly, and to include the cost of that disposal in the price of their products. That may make it more difficult for them to compete, but it’s a cost of doing business–we don’t say, well, if it is too expensive not to poison our water supply, just go ahead and poison us.

Some of the hand-wringing and dire warnings are a recognition that the price of clean energy–especially wind and solar–has plummeted; in fact, utilities all over the country are seeing wind and solar bids that are cheaper than coal, the price of which has been steadily rising. (Austin Energy in Texas recently announced that it’s buying solar at half the price of coal, and that electricity costs for Austin residents will drop; an Oklahoma utility (AEP) says its purchase of wind power will save customers over 50 million dollars.)

The policy question is pretty simple: why should government protect the coal industry from market forces by asking taxpayers to continue paying for the industry’s externalities?

The answer is pretty clear, too: why in the world would we subsidize something that is costing the state clean energy jobs, contributing to climate change and making Hoosiers ill?


  1. The answer to “why would we subsidize….” is the age-old answer to most questions involving government and big business – FOLLOW THE MONEY. And these two cannot and will not be separated. It hasn’t been that long ago that smoking and second-hand smoke was the cause of all ills and countless deaths. As a former smoker (I quit 16 years ago) I knew it was not healthy and do not argue about serious and long-lasting effects of this bad habit but I was also aware that the pollution we were and are inundated with on all sides had and still has caused more problems than smokers. We have not yet stopped the pollution of air, water, ground, foods and drinks and much of the pollution of our environment is bottled and bagged in plastic which further pollutes the environment. I am one of the culprits who still uses plastic bags from stores and am forced to buy milk and juice in plastic containers. The fact that IPALCO is a primary polluter can be traced to use of thousands of wasted hours of electricity by businesses and residential use will probably never change unless and until they begin using other energy sources and the cost shows up on our monthly utility bills.

  2. I have never seen any testimony anywhere that asserts that the Carbon Emission proposed limits are not in the interest of public health. The only arguments against the new standards are that they cost money. When I can correlate student respiratory illness to the air quality at the school I believe that it is time we do something.

  3. Another question to ask the governor (and others): If not now, when? The governor recently announced that the new EPA rules will hurt Indiana companies and will cost jobs. This is the standard Republican response to every new program/initative. How much longer can Indiana use this old argument to protect an industry that is itself becoming a fossil?

  4. All those job losses in Coal will be replaced with Solar and Wind production. I don’t know why there is so much resistance. Don’t they know that we have all of this solar and wind not being tapped? We are wasting time not getting on board with that considering we won’t have to outsource those jobs, will we?

  5. There is not only the belching smoke from the combustion process, but also the storage of the waste from the process – Coal Ash. Then we have the removal of the coal itself from the earth. What is the cost of leveling mountains to obtain coal and the proper containment of the over burden.

    What we do see is at every step of the way the Coal Industry will fight against the true cost of extraction, combustion and disposal of their product. Of course the cost of coal will go up, but the reverse side of coin is to turn Indiana into Third World Country where companies with their politically paid for permission slips can dump what ever they want where ever they want. As long it is not dumped on Mike Pence’s door step it will have Pence’s seal of approval

  6. Is the IU study reporting a cost of 5 billion for the nation or just Indiana? I have no sense of how big the health damage is, clearly. I assume national, since the Carnegie-Mellon reported figure in the next paragraph must be national.

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