NEWBURG, MD - MAY 29: Katherine Boswell works in her garden in the shadow of the coal fired Morgantown Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Newburg, Maryland. Next week President Obama is expected to announce new EPA plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal fired power plants.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Katherine Boswell works in her garden in the shadow of the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Newburg, Maryland. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A new study sheds light on looming key policy choices to be made by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in finalizing the Clean Power Plan this summer.

The peer-reviewed study has recently been published in the online edition of “Nature Climate Change” and constitutes the culmination of a joint research endeavor under the auspices of Science Policy Exchange bringing together researchers from Syracuse University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston University’s School of Public Health, Harvard Forest, Resources for the Future, and Sonoma Technologies.

The study led by Dr. Charles Driscoll, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University, found that states in the US will gain significant and widespread “immediate health benefits if EPA sets strong standards.” What is crucial here is that clean air and public health are to benefit in tandem from the implementation of power plant carbon emission standards thereby mitigating the social impacts of burning fossil fuels. It is a costly misperception – literally in terms of ensuing health care costs for treating pollution-related illnesses – to think that the US is somehow shielded from air pollution-related illnesses because the media is continuously pointing the finger away at rapidly developing countries such as China or India.

The analysis of three ‘power plant carbon standards’ scenarios reveals that the most stringent interpretation as well as implementation of such aforementioned standards would prevent “an expected 3,500 premature deaths every year” (results are for the year 2020) as well as avert a significant number of heart attacks and hospitalizations per annum resulting from air pollution-related illnesses due to the direct release of pollutants – such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (PM 2.5) – into the atmosphere. Not to be forgotten, the proposed Clean Power Plan – with new regulations for existing power plants – was primarily intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its largest source – the power generation sector. Importantly, the study also shows that weaker standards “provide fewer estimated health benefits and could even have detrimental health effects.”

Roman Air & Health Graphic1

Source: Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (Syracuse University)

According to the study and the infographic above, “large clean air and health co-benefits are possible with a power plant rule that includes stringent carbon dioxide emission targets, flexible compliance options, and significant program investments in end-user energy efficiency, as shown in the [systemwide] ‘Electricity Sector Improvements’ scenario.” This scenario, which is most similar to the actual proposed Clean Power Plan, is also shown to yield superior results with regard to any potential co-benefits vis-à-vis just limited individual power plant upgrades in the so-called “Powerplant Improvements” scenario.

Interestingly, the researchers also mapped out air quality and related health benefits state-by-state. The following graphic depicts how New York State would ‘benefit’. For other states – especially in terms of power generation and energy production Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas – follow link here.

Roman Air & Health Graphic2

Source: Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (Syracuse University)

However, keep in mind that there are also potential drawbacks of such regulatory – partly politically charged – changes, which should not be swept under the rug because they impact a significant number of Americans who try to make a living. An article published on Breaking Energy on the EPA’s ozone proposal cites API’s Howard Feldman, Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, as stating the following: “It is an issue that is of great concern. (…) We think of the significant impact to all of industry, to all of business, not unique to oil and gas. It’s across the breadth of the economy, the potential impacts.” So, obviously there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. It appears, however, to be a good idea for the EPA to at least broaden its perspective because Americans cannot sustain their lives with clean air and a legacy of domestic action on climate change only. It is also not helpful to simply suggest to Americans impacted by such regulations to venture out and look for a job in the growing renewable energy sector.

Note, an interesting follow-on study “analyzing the added benefits of power plant carbon standards for water” et alia is scheduled to be published this summer.