Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of coal plants and meth makers

   Let's say your neighbor spent his working hours cooking methamphetamine.

   Let's say that instead of cooking it in the basement, confining lethal fumes to his home-sweet four walls and his two incinerated lungs, your neighbor cooked meth as one would a backyard brisket: over your fence.

   Let's say that, nauseated by the fumes, you complained to the sheriff (who happened to be on the take from the meth dealer).

   Let's say the sheriff granted that breathing meth-lab fumes is bad for you, but said the economic activity generated by the next-door business had to be weighed.

   "What you propose — shutting down this enterprise — is a jobs killer," let's say the sheriff said. "No can do."

   Welcome to the policy morass that has allowed utilities to spew deadly toxins over millions of backyard fences without a care. Hint: The policies have never been driven by breathers — until just the other day.

     That's when the Environmental Protection Agency, after two decades of deliberation (read: stalling), finally set forth some protections fit for its name. By 2016 coal-fired utilities would (1) install scrubbers to limit airborne poisons like mercury, cadmium, arsenic and nickel, (2) convert to another fuel like natural gas, or (3) shut down.

    This evoked exactly what one would expect. Republican U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who calls global climate change "a hoax," called the rule a "a thinly veiled electricity tax" that would hurt jobs.

    On the campaign trail in Iowa, Rick Perry said that as president he would go after the EPA with a veritable pickax, "audit every regulation that's gone forward since '08, and if it kills jobs versus help create jobs, it's gone." 

     Listen to discourse in the GOP presidential race this year and hear the yearning for the days cataloged by Upton Sinclair in the The Jungle and Rachel Carson in Since Silent Spring — where commerce ruled over all, where labor and environmental standards were matters for industry to dictate. Hear Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and, of course, Michele Bachmann call for dismantling the EPA. And in its stead? Well, state or local control, of course.

    Now, come on, folks. Let's ponder what these people are saying. Really. 

     Local and state control? What happens when state lawmakers are on the take from polluters?

     Also, what happens when pollution from one state threatens the health and welfare of another next door?

     Days after the EPA issued its new mercury rule, notoriously recalcitrant states like Texas got a stay in court on another key EPA edict,  the "cross-state emissions rule." Under it, sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions in 27 states would be considered to have no boundaries when shared across state lines.

     As with the decades-long stall against mercury controls, this court victory was seen as buying polluters time to plug along with antiquated technology, even if they had the means to do the right thing.

     This is all dictated by dollars and cents for those calling the shots in each state capitol, and we aren't talking about elected officials or the people who elect them. We're talking about industry.

     Jobs? Actually, jobs come from supplying technology to clean up utilities.

     No, this is about the politics of stasis, of entrenched special interests having their way. It's the politics of convenience vs. the quest for sane and economical alternatives to things that kill us.

     Face it. The old-technology power plant, the never-easing dependency on fossil fuels, the blindness to pollution's pathologies — whether to individuals or the planet itself — is the face of the political conservative next door.

       Longtime Texas  newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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