Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category

Yesterday, House and Senate Republicans revealed a new tactic in their war against the Clean Power Plan, the EPA proposal to curb carbon pollution: Pass legislation permitting states to “just say no” to the rule, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been urging the states to do. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) each released legislation that would let states opt out of the Clean Power Plan, purportedly to protect their electricity consumers (among other reasons).

Is this the same party that just proposed slashing support for public housing, food assistance, and home energy bills? Yes, and it hasn’t suddenly decided to help struggling American families. These new pieces of legislation are every bit as anti-consumer.

Whitfield released a “discussion draft” that would exempt a state  from the Clean Power Plan if the governor determines that complying would “have a significant adverse effect” on ratepayers by raising electricity rates or on reliability of the state’s electricity grid. Portman filed an amendment to the Senate budget resolution suggesting that states should be allowed to opt out of the Clean Power Plan if, among other things “ a Governor or legislative body of a State determines that the requirements of that section [section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the Clean Power Plan] would increase retail electricity prices with a disproportionate impact on low-income or fixed-income households . . . .”*

Both pieces of legislation reflect major misunderstandings of the Clean Power Plan, and they would harm consumers considerably. Here’s why:

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by mitigating climate change. Climate change poses a severe threat to American consumers, and in particular to vulnerable populations. A few of the most salient risks include:

  • higher taxes and market prices to cover the costs of widespread damage to infrastructure and other property from extreme weather;
  • diminished quality and higher prices for food and water, heightening food insecurity for America’s most vulnerable populations; and
  • increased illness and disease from extreme heat events, reduced air quality, and increased food-borne, water-borne, and insect-borne pathogens.

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by curbing carbon pollution, which will mitigate these harms. The Plan will also reduce other forms of pollution from the nation’s dirtiest power plants, like emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. As a result, it will boost public health further, reducing both premature deaths and non-fatal cardiovascular disease.

The Clean Power Plan will lower consumers’ electricity bills. The Clean Power Plan should lower consumer costs, not raise them, because it will spur improvements in energy efficiency. Although electricity prices may rise modestly under the Plan, consumers will use less electricity, resulting in lower bills overall. The EPA projects that the Plan will lower consumer bills by 8.4 percent by 2030. A Public Citizen analysis suggests that the EPA  estimate is conservative, overestimating the cost of efficiency programs and underestimating how much progress the states can make on efficiency. Consumer costs are likely to decline by even more than the agency projects.

States should serve their consumers and protect vulnerable populations. If these consumer benefits don’t materialize, then it is likely the states, not the EPA, that will bear responsibility. The states can take a lead role in implementing the Clean Power Plan by writing their own compliance plans. State policymakers can choose to implement the Plan in a manner that benefits or harms consumers and protects or burdens vulnerable populations. State governments have a responsibility to serve their citizens and protect vulnerable communities. The amendment is wrong to excuse the states from those duties and suggest that the responsibility for harming consumers lies with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a statute that protects the public by safeguarding our health.

What’s really going on here is a familiar story: Congressional Republicans are using consumer protection as an excuse to advance the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Undermining the Clean Power Plan would harm American families, making them sicker and raising the cost of basic household needs like food and electricity.

*Technically, the Portman amendment would permit the Chairman of the Budget Committee to revise the allocations in the budget resolution in light of later legislation permitting states to opt out of the Clean Power Plan for the reasons above. Members of Congress often discuss these matters as if they actually make law rather than just contemplate hypothetical future legislation.

 

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By Robert Craycraft

Asbestos was once used as a flame-retardant and for electrical insulation in buildings, ships and homes. Before it was discovered to cause cancer, millions of American workers and veterans handled and were otherwise exposed to deadly asbestos fibers.

An unknown amount of the hazardous material is still present in our communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that roughly 3,000 people continue to die from mesothelioma and asbestosis every year; some experts estimate the death toll is as high as 10,000 annually when other types of asbestos-linked diseases and cancers are included.

In early February, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law held a hearing on H.R. 526, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (or FACT Act). Generally speaking, the more transparency the better. However, in this case, the asbestos industry is using the guise of “transparency” to push the FACT Act as a way to delay compensation to asbestos victims and their families. The bill would require the trusts that manage victim compensation to retroactively compile information on all claims they’ve paid and to require the trusts to answer any and all information requests by asbestos company defendants.

These paperwork requirements could have the effect of slowing or even stopping the important work of the trusts to compensate victims that have developed deadly diseases like mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) called the FACT Act a “Trojan horse” which “guarantees that the insurance companies pay as little as possible.”

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The congressional leaders who negotiated $1.1 trillion federal spending bill – dubbed the “CRomnibus” – must not have known they were in for a fight.

But when Public Citizen and other public interest allies got hold of the 1,600-page bill and saw that it contained a bevy of atrocious policy riders that had nothing to do with funding the government, the fight was coming.

The take-it-or-leave-it budget – including the poison pill provisions that Public Citizen opposed – did ultimately pass. The fight for its passage is instructive for how public interest advocates can wield power in the coming years, even as majorities in Congress seem determined to deliver a return on Corporate America’s Citizens United-enabled election investments.

The worst that could have happened would have been if the giveaways to corporations and the super rich had been accepted without a fight.

Thankfully, that’s not what happened.

We called on grassroots activists like you to act – to email and call your members of Congress – and you acted.

Tens of thousands of outraged citizens made it known that they would not accept a budget bill that allows millionaires and billionaires to have more influence in our elections and that puts taxpayers on the hook for Wall Street’s recklessness.

And then – hearing the outrage of tens of thousands of constituents across the country – principled members of Congress (of both major parties) fought the bipartisan backroom deal.

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We’ve just seen the worst that Washington has to offer with the “cromnibus” government spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night.

Instead of Congress passing a clean funding bill along lines that were previously agreed to and had bipartisan acceptance, Big Business exercised its insider influence and took advantage of an artificially rushed and secretive process to cut deals to enhance the political influence of the super-rich, put taxpayers on the hook – again – for Wall Street recklessness and make our roads less safe.

Moneyed interests maneuvered to eviscerate campaign spending rules, so that a super-rich couple may now contribute up to $3 million to a national political party in a single (two-year) election cycle. It’s a certainty that this move will be followed up by calls to “level the playing field” and permit the same monstrous contributions to candidates and political committees.

Wall Street called on its friends to include a Citigroup-drafted provision that would roll back a key Dodd-Frank measure that was designed to prevent Big Banks from using taxpayer-insured money to bet in the derivatives markets. With the top four banks responsible for 93 percent of derivatives activities in the United States, there is zero question about which entities will benefit. Nor who will pay; when the next financial crisis comes – as it will, as certainly as the calendar changes – taxpayers will be forced to pay for Wall Street gambling on derivatives.

At the behest of the trucking industry, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins included in the spending bill a provision to override rules to reduce truck driver fatigue, which risks the lives of truckers and other drivers.

These are only some of the known giveaways in the spending bill. It will probably take many weeks, or longer, before all of the industry deals are discovered.

As serious and troubling as are these measures, there is reason to fear worse is to come. Even though it opposed many of these harmful provisions, the White House pushed for approval of the overall spending deal, which had to overcome substantial opposition from members of Congress in both parties. If this is the kind of “bipartisanship” we’re going to see in the coming two years, the country is facing dire prospects indeed.

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On Monday we submitted our comments to the EPA on its draft Clean Power Plan. Roughly two million people told the EPA they support the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. We strongly support the plan, and we think the agency should make it much stronger and even more consumer friendly. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we can advance those two goals at the same time. Fighting climate change is good for consumers. Fighting it more aggressively—with a focus on low-cost solutions—is even better. The short  version of our recommendations is that the Clean Power Plan should use much more energy efficiency and renewables, much less natural gas (if any), and likely no nuclear power.

We care about climate change because it will be devastating to consumers—to all Americans, that is—and especially  to the poor, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. We also care about protecting consumer budgets—again particularly those of low-income households. Consumers usually pay for upgrades or other changes in electricity infrastructure on their utility bills, and for this reason opponents of climate change policy have been arguing that the Clean Power Plan will hurt consumers. Cutting carbon emissions will cost money, they argue, straining household budgets.

We found the opposite. The strongest tools to reduce carbon emissions from power plants are actually the least expensive and the most beneficial to consumers. If the EPA were to craft the rule using a simple organizing principle—cut carbon incrementally by using the lowest-cost strategy to displace the most carbon-intensive electricity generation—the rule would be much stronger and less expensive. Here are the key points:

  • Treat efficiency and renewables as replacing fossil-fuels, in order of the most carbon intensive. The proposal assumes that new natural gas generation will replace coal. But it treats energy efficiency and renewables as merely adding to the pool of available power rather than displacing coal or natural gas. That doesn’t make sense. The point of boosting efficiency and renewables is to displace fossil fuels—and in fact that’s what usually happens in the market because fossil-fuel generation usually has higher operating costs. This simple common sense change would strengthen the rule a great deal.
  • Strengthen the efficiency targets significantly. Energy efficiency is by far the lowest-cost way to cut carbon emissions, but the EPA overestimates its cost by 60 to 100 percent. It also sets its targets too low. The agency expects us to increase efficiency by just 1.5 percent annually even though the best states are already pursuing gains of 2 percent or more. And it considers only utility efficiency programs like weatherization of homes, leaving out things like 1building codes and appliance standards. Boost the efficiency targets, and you get a much more powerful, less expensive rule.
  • Strengthen the renewables targets significantly. As UCS has demonstrated, the EPA makes similar mistakes with renewables. States can add nearly double the amount of renewables that the proposal projects, at much lower cost.
  • Curb the use of natural gas. The plan’s reliance on natural gas is misplaced for multiple reasons. First, because of methane emissions, switching from coal to natural gas may not have any climate benefit for more than 100 years. We need to fix the problem well before then. Second, the proposal’s reliance on natural gas will lead to more environmentally hazardous fracking, which the EPA should not be encouraging, and put additional pressure on natural gas prices, which are already projected to rise 23 percent by 2030, straining household budgets. Finally, the EPA underestimates the cost of using natural gas to replace coal because it overlooks that we need to phase out natural gas soon too. Natural gas emits less carbon than coal, but still very significant amounts, and we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible. The real cost of switching to natural gas is the cost of the current change plus the expense of moving to renewables in a few years. We would save a lot of money by going straight to renewables.
  • Curb (likely eliminate) the use of nuclear power. Nuclear power is usually an exorbitant boondoggle that consumers get stuck subsidizing through their electricity bills. The EPA’s proposal gets the cost of nuclear power wrong in nearly every way. It underestimates the costs of subsidizing existing nuclear plants that can’t make money. It omits the multi-billion-dollar cost of completing nuclear generators currently under-construction. (These projects nearly always run way behind schedule and cost billions more than budgeted; we would save a lot of money by scrapping them even mid-construction.) It also fails to account for the cost of storing nuclear waste, a problem we still haven’t solved but which will cost billions, and ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents. As of late 2012, Tokyo Electric Power Co. was estimating that the cleanup from the Fukushima disaster would cost up to $137 billion. It’s hard to find space for nuclear power in sound climate policy when every other option is cheaper and efficiency and renewables can accomplish so much.

The Clean Power Plan already represents a significant step in fighting climate change, and it will make consumers far better off. For those reasons, we told the EPA that we strongly support the plan. But we need to do better—and we can.

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