For as long as there have been people on the planet, air and water have been used as free resources. Free for our everyday consumption and free for the disposal of the by-products and residues we don’t want.
We have belatedly recognized we cannot indiscriminately dump our wastes into the water and the atmosphere with no regard for our downstream or downwind neighbors. Furthermore with 7 billion (and growing) neighbors on the planet, there are no places that aren’t downstream of someone else.
Under the guidance and enforcement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we have poured a great deal of effort and resources into minimizing the impacts of our waste discharges. Unfortunately progress is slow and sporadic. More needs to be done.
The “free” air above and around us has been accepting the carbon dioxide resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels. Billions of tons have been discharged and remain in the atmosphere. Since we cannot see carbon dioxide, we have been complacent about this unregulated discharge. However, we now know that the accumulation of greenhouse gases is responsible for climate changes.
Control of carbon dioxide remains contentious. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2007 affirmed that greenhouse gases are pollutants and therefore subject to regulation by the EPA. This position was largely upheld in another Supreme Court case decided earlier this year.
In June 2014, the EPA proposed regulations that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants and industry. These new rules are estimated to provide public health benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030 at a cost of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion. This is a seven-to-one benefit ratio on health costs alone, and that doesn't even include other climate change-related benefits.
Progress on climate change does not come easily. Public review of the proposed new regulations is currently under way with final issuance due in June 2015. As is always the case with major environmental regulation, economic interests compete with health and quality of life concerns to find an appropriate balance. There are already numerous lawsuits against the federal government brought by coal producing states, power generators, and industry.
This is important regulation. It will cost some consumers a few dollars but this is small and overdue payment for the years and years of free discharge of fossil fuel combustion residues into the atmosphere.
The EPA becomes the lightning rod for this environmental protection as has been the case so often in the past. From personal experience, I know that the EPA can be a difficult and inflexible bureaucracy. Yet, it is unimaginable to consider the environmental chaos that would exist without the EPA or some similar body balancing the environmental and economic costs and benefits.
In this and every election cycle, candidates criticize the EPA and even call for its abolition. This is nonsense. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not perfect but it is necessary. We owe it our support in the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions as one step to forestall the ravages of climate change.