Harvard study finds $38 billion economic benefit from EPA’s carbon rule

FILE — In this March 16, 2011, file photo, exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to relax some limits it set on smokestack emissions that cross state lines and taint downwind areas with air pollution from power plants they can’t control. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
FILE — In this March 16, 2011, file photo, exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to relax some limits it set on smokestack emissions that cross state lines and taint downwind areas with air pollution from power plants they can’t control. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

When the Environmental Protection Agency published a rule to reduce carbon emissions from power plants last year, critics quickly said the plan was too economically costly for businesses and home electricity bills. But now, a new study led by researchers from Harvard University finds that nearly all regions of the U.S. stand to gain economically from a power plant carbon standard like the Clean Power Plan, and do so fairly quickly.

Using a scenario that somewhat resembles the Clean Power Plan (CPP) — a policy moderately stringent and highly flexible — researchers calculated net benefits of some $38 billion a year, according to the study published Wednesday in the online journal PLOS ONE.

“Health benefits would outweigh the estimated costs of the carbon standard in our study for 13 out of 14 power sector regions within five years of implementation, even though we only looked at a subset of the total benefits,” said lead author Jonathan Buonocore, research associate and program leader at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s public health school. The one region that benefits less is the Pacific Northwest, Buonocore told ThinkProgress. That’s because the burden to air quality from electricity generation in that region is fairly low compared to the rest of the country. States there rely more heavily on hydroelectric plants, and have less to do to comply with the CPP. Other regions that include states like West Virginia or Ohio rely more on fossil fuel electricity, meaning there is more carbon pollution to cut.

Buonocore said the region that encompasses West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania benefits the most from lower power plant emissions. These states “experience the greatest improvement in air quality and they also have a reasonably high population … so there is a lot of people that experience health benefits due to the implementation of this carbon standard.” These three states together hold some 25 million people.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants make up about 31 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — largely carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants can have public health “co-benefits,” according to the study, by simultaneously decreasing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter emissions — tiny particles that can harm the heart and lungs.

The study analyzed the anticipated health co-benefits of a power plant carbon standard that would achieve a 35 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 through cleaner fuels, energy efficiency, emissions trading, and other measures. Researchers didn’t calculate direct health benefits due to climate change mitigation, such as fewer heat-related illnesses, reduction in extreme weather, and avoided increases in vector-borne diseases, though Buonocore said creating such a study is on their wish list. Still, even without quantifying these factors, he said some 3,500 lives could be saved every year with a power plant carbon standard. The health burden of electricity generation is about 17,000 lives a year, according to Buonocore.

Research has repeatedly shown that improved air quality is associated with health benefits such as fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and hospitalizations from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Some 3,500 lives could be saved every year with a power plant carbon standard

The Clean Power Plan — a cornerstone of President Obama’s climate change initiative — calls for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 32 percent over 2005 levels in the next 15 years. The rule sets emissions standards and guidelines while allowing states to decide how to comply. The Supreme Court put the rule on hold in February as various states objected to it — including West Virginia and Ohio, two coal-dependent states that have long opposed the plan but the study now finds would benefit the most.

According to the study, the highest costs of $1.5 to $3.6 billion a year are projected for the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast regions under the central cost case. Those same regions also have among the greatest benefits, ranging from $1.7 billion to $5.6 billion. Quantifying emission reductions in power plants is not unprecedented, but this is the first study of its kind to break down the costs and benefits by sub-region.

“The nice thing about this study, and others like it, is that it’s able to quantify air quality and health benefits that are immediate,” said Buonocore. “So it’s able to kind of put this information in terms of benefits that can be a lot more relevant to policy makers and other decision makers.”

The Clean Power Plan is set to have its day in court in September.