Health is making an increasingly larger ripple in the energy and environment space. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2014 report released last week, 47 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or short-term or year-round particulate matter. The ALA released its report just one day after a court victory on this very topic. On April 29, the Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which limits upwind states’ allowable levels of particulates and ozone-forming pollutants. Public health, even more than the environment, is at the crux of this rule.
After years of disagreement over who should take responsibility for wind-blown pollution (and how), CSAPR puts the cost on the producer. Twenty-eight central, southern and eastern states will be required to meet limits for particulate and/or sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions (depending on which is problematic in the particular state) so that downwind states can meet air quality standards.
It’s a hard blow for power companies, coming on the heels of a court victory for mercury limits and with the EPA wrapping up public comment on proposed carbon dioxide limits for power plants.
While some utilities in affected states have already predicted plant closures, the EPA predicts that CSAPR will annually prevent between 13,000 and 34,000 premature deaths, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million absences from work or school. It also predicts that the benefits will far outweigh the costs: $120 to $280 billion in annual health and environmental benefits vs. $800 million in annual projected costs (plus approximately $1.6 billion annually in capital investments that are already underway).
Environmental groups are happy, but this isn’t an environmental outcome or message that’s being touted. (I find it interesting that the EPA’s main web page about CSAPR includes only one sentence devoted to the environmental benefits – in contrast to previous efforts to curb those same pollutants in order to decrease acid rain.)
This is about human health – it’s a people message. Environmental groups are adopting the approach, as the Sierra Club has in several anti-coal ads featuring the effects of coal/air pollution on children’s health. While Sierra Club ads aren’t going to reach too far across the political aisle, a people message focused on health is generally more likely to prick the ears of both Republicans and Democrats, green-minded and not.
Here are a few virtues to glean from a focus on public health in the energy and environment space:
- It can put a face on a message.
- It gives the public something to protect – it’s a low-risk way to be a hero.
- It’s about making the future better for ourselves and generations to come – our Pulse studies consistently find that preserving natural resources for future generations resonates with a broad audience.
- It connects to a highly visible concern in our culture – think of all the public health campaigns in the media, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, awareness-raising events for cancer and heart disease, and the many anti-smoking campaigns.
Public health and the environment could benefit greatly from CSAPR, but there’s always a trade-off. Resulting power plant closures could mean jobs lost plus higher rates for customers. CSAPR’s focus on public health, however, creates an opportunity for utilities to think about what they’re protecting and what face they’re projecting in their messaging.
Most of all, it’s a chance for utilities to look forward and better align with public sentiment, squarely positioning themselves in our common future, and for our common good, with new technology and new generation methods. Customers (and public interest groups) will be less likely to oppose a rate case in support of “improving air quality and our children’s health” rather than one to “achieve regulatory compliance” or “emissions reductions standards.”
In a few weeks, we’ll look at the impact of health messaging in the realm of sustainable products, where chemicals we bring into our homes, rather than pollutants escaping our industries, are the issue.