Clean Power Plan begs for a better conservative response to pollution control

detail of white smoke polluted sky

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Designed to curb U.S. carbon emissions, conservatives predictably don’t like the plan.

That’s simply not a good enough response.

There’s plenty not to like about how we currently handle pollution control, but most of us think that government does have at least some role in limiting pollution.

To fight rules on carbon dioxide, conservatives largely have opted for the “just say no” strategy of litigation and noncompliance. It might work. Then again, the Supreme Court’s deference to Congress in the Affordable Care Act cases, combined with the trajectory of recent carbon litigation, both indicate that it might not.

The EPA is as much of a command-and-control political entity as any in Washington. Most of its authority is derived from congressional power delegated more than 40 years ago. Add in a few Supreme Court decisions favorable to the agency, and we’re left with bureaucrats that write, change and enforce law at-will.

Thanks to a 2009 Supreme Court decision, we already consider carbon dioxide a pollutant as a matter of law. Restraining carbon emissions has serious implications for the cost of electricity; even proponents of the plan acknowledge as much.

While the environmental benefits of cleaner air and water are important, those benefits won’t pay consumers electric bill every month. If generators are out of compliance, the EPA imposes fines and penalties, effectively directing the “compensation” for pollution harm to itself, rather than to individuals who are impacted. The model trades environmental harms for economic ones.

Unfortunately, conservatives fighting the battle over carbon regulation are missing the bigger point: the EPA is a clumsy way to regulate pollution in the first place.

EPA regulation is complicated, confusing and ever-changing. Just consider the EPA’s maximum achievable control technology (MACT) rules. For existing generation, the MACT emission level “must equal the average emissions limitations currently achieved by the best-performing 12 percent of sources in that source category, if there are 30 or more existing sources.”

Got that?

The Clean Power Plan isn’t much different. It operates on an equally vague “best system of emission reduction…adequately demonstrated” (BSER) standard that focuses on three “building blocks.”

Building blocks should be children’s toys, not regulatory requirements.

EPA emission restrictions could change at any time, because they’re tied to the currently available technology, rather than to objective indicators of health and safety. The constant change is costly, and industry players have a little incentive to innovate beyond initial requirements.

Instead, we should set emission levels to protect our citizens and our environment. Industry should be free to develop creative ways to comply. Sure, we’ll battle over where to draw those lines, but clear stable limits make compliance less costly over the long haul.

This may make a few heads explode, but there’s actually a strong conservative case for pollution taxes as an alternative to heavy-handed EPA regulation. Conservatives need not like the idea of taxes to see that they’re a more flexible option than tomes of regulation.

A tax has the potential to meet our pollution-control goals with the clarity and efficiency that are conspicuously absent from the current EPA paradigm. It also presents the unique opportunity to protect ratepayers against higher energy costs by offsetting other taxes, like those assessed on income.

The added bonus for conservatives is that pollution taxes will likely function as a declining revenue stream, as power generators find ways to meet limits efficiently. That has tremendous potential to limit the size of government.

Pollution taxes aren’t without pitfalls. An effective pollution tax requires politicians ensure the solution is revenue-neutral and not designed to grow government. More importantly, such taxes also need to be structured as an alternative means for pollution control, rather than being layered atop costly regulations.

Conservatives aren’t stuck with the “EPA or the highway” approach to pollution. Even in the event that the Supreme Court upends the Clean Power Plan, we can still do better handling existing pollutants. If we’re willing to explore other options, we just might do a better job of protecting consumers and our environment at the same time.

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