Tag Archives: coal

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?