At least the EPA did one thing right in the new emissions regulations: Don't nix the nukes

While the emissions regulations mostly meant to not-so-gently steer the country’s power plants away from coal are likely to be hugely, regressively costly in terms of job- and wealth-creation, the eco-radical set would argue that those costs are ones to which we should readily resign ourselves in order to bring us one step closer to climate-change mitigation. The most glaring problem with that reasoning, however, is that these regulations are not going to be particularly effective at achieving significant carbon-emissions reduction.

The United States’ electricity generation only accounts for about a third of its carbon emissions, and the U.S. is no longer the lone major polluter on the planet — and it is going to become even less so as other countries’ economies develop and the world’s population continues to grow in both wealth and numbers. As Jonathan Adler points out in an excellent post at the Volokh Conspiracy/WaPo (that you should definitely go read in full if you’re into environmental issues), these regulations are really only serving to highlight the incredibly limited effectiveness we can ever ever hope to have via regulation and top-down central economic planning. What we really need are more advanced, diversified, cost-effective, and clean technologies that can keep providing heightening energy efficiency for fewer monetary and environmental costs. …In a nutshell, the type of major innovations that Big Governments is exceptionally poor at creating when they are leading both the science community and investment dollars around by the nose while simultaneously squashing the competitive influences of the free market via politically-directed subsidies and regulations.

Here, for instance, is a very recent example of this phenomenon: The EPA expects that the coal plants it is effectively shutting down with these regulations will be replaced by cleaner-burning natural gas, but the rise of natural gas was largely brought about by free-enterprise-driven innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling on state and private lands. (And, sidebar: I would merely like to take this opportunity to once again condemn the eco-radical movement for what must be either its stupidity, its obstinacy, or else its lack of sincerity concerning its true goals in trying to rid the world of fracking. The degree of counterproductivity there is mind-numbing.)

In that vein, then, I suppose we can at least be glad that the EPA didn’t decide to follow the ideological and ill-advised path laid down by Germany’s grandiose climate-change ambitions. In what was supposed to be their super-green and pioneering Energiewende transformation, Germany decided to get rid of their nuclear power plants in favor of subsidizing expensive solar and wind schemes — with the end result being a ridiculously pricey and horribly intermittent energy grid that they then had to back up by bringing more coal plants online and perpetuating net emissions that were higher than they were when they started out.

The nuclear power industry is in the throes of its own set of economic problems when it comes to competing with coal and natural gas plants (and it is on the receiving end of its own set of government subsidies), but it produces virtually zero emissions without taking up too much land. What’s more, it produces reliable, around-the-clock energy output that puts it light years ahead of wind and solar energy, and fortunately, the EPA isn’t trying to punish it with the new emissions regulations like some of the other hysterical policymakers of the world have been doing lately. Instead, the agency’s rule looks to “discourage premature retirement” and “encourage deployment of nuclear unit designs that reflect advances over earlier designs”:

The Obama administration today threw a potential — and limited — lifeline to the country’s ailing nuclear industry, highlighting the ability of existing reactors to help states curb emissions.

U.S. EPA unveiled a proposal for curbing emissions from existing power plants that pointed to the United States’ fleet of about 100 reactors as playing a critical role — alongside ramping up efficiency and shifting to natural gas and other low-carbon alternatives — in cutting the utility sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030.

At issue is EPA’s finding in the proposal that preventing the closure of “at-risk” existing reactors could avoid up to 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide during the initial compliance phase of 10 years.

“Policies that encourage development of renewable energy capacity and discourage premature retirement of nuclear capacity could be useful elements of CO2 reduction strategies and are consistent with current industry behavior,” the agency said. “Costs of CO2 reductions achievable through these policies have been estimated in a range from $10 to $40 per metric ton.”

As ever, I find little use for subsidy schemes of any sort beyond choking off innovation and investment elsewhere — and I think the government could be spending our money much more effectively with things like technology inducement prizes, as Adler notes — but if the Obama EPA insists on regulating the heck out of our energy sector, they could be doing it even more illogically by trying to specifically stamp out nuclear, as a handful of other crazed countries have done. That’s all I’m saying.

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