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Traffic fatalities vs. fatalities from power-plant emissions (via NY Times)

Traffic accidents were responsible for 32,788 deaths in the U.S. last year (not to mention $41 billion in medical costs and lost work). If we could eliminate those fatalities with new regulations that cost the private sector $3 billion, would we? Should we?

Unless you're an elected official, your answer to those questions is probably "yes". But what if the situation were slightly different? What if we could save 34,000 lives each year by limiting emissions from coal-burning power plants for the same cost? That's the question posed by Felicity Barringer in The New York Times.

On the Times' "Green" blog, Barringer writes about new EPA regulations that tighten limits on smokestack emissions at coal-burning power plants in 28 states. According to data from the EPA, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) could prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths each year, as well as 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 19,000 trips to hospitals and emergency rooms. (For the curious, here's a PDF of the study that serves as the basis for those numbers.)

What's more, a version of the CSAPR has already been in effect for five years. CSAPR is really a replacement/enlargement of the Clean Air Energy Rule (CAIR) put in place by the EPA in March 2005. Today, CAIR costs utility companies around $1.6 billion per year. The CSAPR regulations approved Wednesday would add around $1 billion to that pricetag, bringing the total to between $2 billion and $3 billion.

Emissions vs. Accidents

Barringer points out what most of us already know: the EPA has a terrible time selling itself to opponents. (As proof, look back a couple of days and note the auto industry's response to the Agency's E15 fuel proposal.)

And so, Barringer offers the EPA a helping hand: she takes the EPA's state-by-state data on premature death and puts it side-by-side with state-by-state traffic fatality stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And what she finds is that in many states, the EPA rules could save more lives than are lost in auto accidents.

Apples vs. Oranges

Of course, Barringer's comparison isn't completely accurate. Traffic deaths are sudden, violent, and in many cases, the fault of a driver. And the exact cause of those fatalities is rarely in question.

Premature deaths from particulate emissions, on the other hand, are slow. Problems accumulate in the human body over many years, and when someone dies from those ailments, it's harder to point a finger at any one cause. Other factors, like smoking or family history might just as easily be to blame.

Barringer is smart enough to acknowledge that the comparison isn't ideal, but it isn't entirely off-base, either. For example, both sorts of deaths stem from human activity and both are preventable: one requires environmental protection regulations, the other needs rules on safety technology, like seat belts and air bags.

Furthermore, we've made some headway on these fronts -- in fact, U.S. auto fatalities now sit at their lowest point in history. (Well, mostly. New England is a notable exception.)

For the EPA-friendly, Barringer is preaching to the choir. But do others find this case persuasive?
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