The EPA’s Power Plant Rule Would Prevent Thousands Of Deaths And Hospitalizations

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed power plant rule is aimed at reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change. But it would also come with major health benefits, a new study confirmed Monday.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the EPA’s carbon rule could prevent 3,500 premature deaths each year, in addition to 1,000 hospitalizations and about 220 heart attacks. That’s because the rule, which aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, will also result in reductions of pollutants like particulates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides — emissions that contribute to smog and which can harm human health when breathed in regularly.

The study also mapped out what states would see the most health benefits from the Clean Power Plan. According to the study, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio, would benefit most from the rule, with 230 to 330 premature deaths avoided each year. Some of these states are also among the most opposed to the Clean Power Plan: Ohio is one of 12 states — all of which are either large producers or consumers of coal — suing the EPA over the proposed rule.

Charles Driscoll, lead author of the study and professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse University, told ThinkProgress that this dichotomy makes sense. Many of the states that stand to gain the most benefits from the Clean Power Plan rely fairly heavily on coal for their energy, so tackling emissions from power plants within those states would more likely result in a noticeable difference in air quality than in states that don’t rely heavily on coal.

“Every state has some degree of benefits, but the benefits are greatest in states that have air quality challenges,” he said.

Driscoll, who along with other Harvard and Syracuse researchers has been working on quantifying the health benefits of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan — and other potential carbon-reducing policies — for about a year, said he and his team have been talking to these states about how the Clean Power Plan would affect the health of their residents. He said these discussions will continue now that the study has been released. In coal-heavy states, Driscoll and his team are trying to “turn the conversation” on the Clean Power Plan, to get people to view the proposed rule as a positive thing, rather than just something that will kill jobs and harm the economy.

“I think people don’t think about this when they think about carbon reductions,” Driscoll said. “They don’t think about other aspects and pollutants associated with it.”

Driscoll said that though some of these states’ leadership hasn’t been supportive of the rule, some residents have been.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with local people in states that have poor air quality … and there’s been a lot of positive reception in these states,” he said. “States aren’t homogeneous, and they need to have intelligent conversations, think about options, and think about doing something in a way to maximize local benefits.”

The study’s results on the health benefits of the Clean Power plan confirm those of a study Driscoll and the other researchers released in September, and Driscoll said the team isn’t done looking into the proposed rule’s impacts. Once the public commenting period is over and the rule is finalized — a move expected this summer — the researchers are planning on doing an analysis on the health benefits of the final rule.

The study also confirms what other research has found about the health benefits of reducing carbon emissions — and reducing the co-pollutants that often come along with carbon. A 2012 report from the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network found that emission-reduction policies such as cap-and-trade are helpful in reducing pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. A 2013 study published in Nature Climate Change found that up to 3 million premature deaths could be avoided each year globally by 2100 if the world aggressively cuts emissions, again because these carbon cuts will also reduce co-pollutants. Air pollution has been tied to 7 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization, and has also been tied to kidney damage, heart disease, stroke, and other ailments.

This kind of worldwide data is important, Driscoll said, because it means that the Clean Power Plan could serve as a model for countries around the world — some of which have far worse air pollution problems than the U.S. And, in the lead-up to the international climate talks in Paris this November, knowing the health benefits of carbon reductions could help counties make decisions about how to achieve reductions and how much they should cut.

Overall, Driscoll said, the study moves the conversation about climate change in the right direction.

“We need to move away from ‘does it exist’ towards ‘what are smart solutions,’ and I think this is an example of that,” he said.