CBO, CRS, EPI find toxics and other EPA rules have benign economic effects

A growing body of research is finding that new Environmental Protection Agency rules will not disrupt the economy and may in fact modestly boost employment. According to a new report by EPI and a January report by the Congressional Research Service, this is true for the air toxics rule, the most costly regulation finalized by EPA during the Obama administration. More generally, overlooked testimony by the director of the Congressional Budget Office from last November concludes that efforts to derail air quality regulations generally, if successful, would harm the economy.

On Dec. 16, 2011, EPA issued its final standards for mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollutants from power plants (the “toxics rule” or the “Utility MACT”). In January, CRS issued EPA’s Utility MACT:  Will the Lights Go Out? As the title suggests, the report’s main focus is on whether the rule would, as some claim, affect the reliability of the power supply. CRS found otherwise, noting that while some facilities would be retired, “almost all of the capacity reduction will occur in areas that have substantial reserve margins,” meaning that the reductions can be easily absorbed without affecting power supply. CRS also observed that the rule includes additional time for compliance if in fact reliability is threatened in specific areas. The report’s bottom line conclusion: “…It is unlikely that electric reliability will be harmed by the rule.”

Last week, my colleague Josh Bivens released a report on the employment effects of the toxics rule. His analysis, unique in its comprehensive examination of both the positive and negative ways in which a regulation can influence employment, concluded that: “The toxics rule will lead to modest job growth in the near term and have no measurable job impact in the longer term.” His preferred single estimate is that 117,000 net jobs would be created.

The main reason why jobs would be created on balance in the near term is that the jobs generated by complying with the regulation, through pollution abatement activities such as increased investment on and the installation of scrubbers, will substantially exceed any jobs lost because of the modest increase in the price of electricity that would be produced. As Josh explains in his report and elsewhere, this is especially true today because of the large amount of capital and labor that is sitting on the sidelines; regulatory changes that spur investments to bring power plants into compliance with the new rules will mobilize this unused capital without leading to any offsetting rise in interest rates.

The Congressional Budget Office uses similar economic logic in assessing air toxics and other air quality rules. In testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Nov. 15, 2011, CBO director Douglas W. Elmendorf included a general assessment of how initiatives to block EPA air quality rules would affect employment or output. He concluded: “On balance, CBO expects that delaying or eliminating those [EPA air] regulations regarding emissions would reduce investment and output during the next few years,” [emphasis added]. Essentially, CBO argued that the jobs created through investments to comply with the rules would exceed the number of jobs created due to alternative investments in the absence of the rules, because little such alternative investing would likely occur. (In my view, this reflects the fact that capacity utilization in the utility sector is at the lowest level on record, suggesting no need for further investments.) CBO also pointed out that the price increases that may result from these rules will not occur for several years, mitigating any near-term impact.

CBO’s use of the argument that regulatory changes are especially likely to spur job gains when, as is the case today, the economy has substantial slack in labor and capital markets, confirms that this reasoning is firmly based in mainstream economic analysis. It is an important argument that deserves greater attention in the ongoing regulatory debate.