A Free Pass to Pollute Is No Way to Pass Climate Bill

Life-saving Clean Air Act protections are not bargaining chips

This page was published 14 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Last week, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) released a long-awaited discussion draft of their climate and energy bill, the American Power Act. Among the bill’s big giveaways to polluters was a surprise invitation to exempt dirty old power plants from clean-up requirements for soot, smog, and toxics such as mercury.

To be clear, this attack on the Clean Air Act goes well beyond controversial waivers of EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases. It undercuts safeguards that are slated to save tens of thousands of lives every year. This sweetener for coal plants is poisonous for Americans.

Every year, soot from coal plants kills an estimated 24,000 people and causes hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and other serious illnesses, especially in children. The vast majority of this suffering, including 90 percent of premature deaths, is preventable with the installation of available, cost-effective pollution controls. However, power companies have managed, often illegally, to keep running dirty coal plants for maximum profit.

Finally, after years of court battles to enforce the Clean Air Act, we are on the verge of a solution. The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to set protective standards that would force long overdue clean-ups. By 2020, EPA estimates that emission reductions from effective implementation of the Clean Air Act will save us $1.2 trillion per year in mortality costs alone.

But coal plants want an out. And they may have found one in this alarming provision of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, which contemplates so-called "regulatory incentives" for plants that promise to retire or switch to cleaner fuels than coal. The idea is to allow old plants to keep operating without required controls so long as they commit to retire or switch fuels at some unspecified point in the future. The problem is that the plants most likely to take the carrot are the plants that would retire anyway. The "incentive" would only give them more time to keep polluting. The Clean Air Act already provides generous compliance periods that let old plants down gently and give planners time to make sure power needs are met. Giving them more time to operate without controls only boosts industry profits at the expense of communities.

Having polluted freely for decades, old coal plants do not deserve another free pass. Keep in mind that these same plants were grandfathered under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977—that is, exempted from clean-up requirements—on the promise that they would soon retire. Instead, the 800-plus coal-fired boilers that were installed pre-1977 (representing roughly 75 percent of our existing coal fleet) are still operating with lethal consequences. It’s past time for them to clean up or shut down.

We cannot allow horse-trading on climate to become a vehicle for gutting Clean Air Act regulation of soot, smog, and air toxics. The health and well-being of the American people is not a bargaining chip.

Sens. Kerry and Lieberman have stated expressly that the bill they released on Wednesday is a discussion draft that is subject to change. No further discussion of so-called regulatory incentives is acceptable. Any mention of exempting coal plants from the Clean Air Act’s fundamental safeguards needs to come out of the bill and off the negotiating table.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”