Bush's `Clear Skies' will do while a better plan is pursued

April 24, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

IT would be easier to criticize President Bush's "Clear Skies" air pollution plan if it were, as critics claim, an environmental head-fake intended to freeze the greens in their hiking boots while corporations stoke the smokestacks.

Former Vice President Al Gore said Monday that the proposal "actually allows more toxic mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur pollution than if we enforced the laws on the books today. It ought to be called the Dirty Skies initiative."

That is simply not true. It suggests Gore has no idea what he's talking about. While Bush's description of the plan, made the same day in upstate New York, also contained some stretchers, his version is much closer to the facts.

"Clear Skies legislation, when passed by Congress, will significantly reduce smog and mercury emissions, as well as stop acid rain," the president said on Earth Day, on an Adirondack mountainside.

Bush's plan won't stop acid rain, for one thing - only reduce it.

The whole subject deserves a better public debate. Our friend Aristotle says the beginning of wisdom is classification, so let's look at the categories of air pollution and their regulation to see how clear Bush's skies would be.

There are three main sources of air poisons: electricity plants, cars and trucks, and other factories such as oil refineries and chemical makers.

Electric power plants are easily the biggest U.S. source of sulfur dioxide, the main cause of acid rain, and are the biggest industrial source of nitrogen oxides, a key precursor of smog. (Cars are the other big nitrogen oxides culprit.) Bush's plan would make huge - stunning, really - cuts in allowable emissions of both those gases.

National nitrogen oxides output by power plants would have to fall 58 percent by 2008 and 66 percent by 2018. Power-plant emissions of sulfur dioxide would fall by 59 percent by 2010 and 73 percent by 2018. Airborne discharge of mercury, another bad pollutant, would be cut by 69 percent by 2018.

These reductions, offered by a president portrayed by many as a valet for the energy lobby, are big, good news. So why aren't most environmentalists happy?

Three reasons, aside from the usual explanation that painting a black hat on any president helps the groups raise money.

First, Bush would cut power-plant pollution not in the traditional way - by micromanaging each facility's output - but by setting national emissions caps and then letting industry figure out how to implement them. Plants that could scrub their smoke easily and cheaply, would. If those plants cut pollution below their share of the national benchmark, they could sell emissions permits to other facilities unable to afford their own cleanup.

While this could allow some individual plants to spew smoke at a rate higher than now allowed, it is a beautifully elegant way of reducing national pollution with minimal economic harm. Tradable emissions permits have already helped reduce U.S. sulfur dioxide output.

Environmentalists are wrong to oppose Bush's plan on these grounds. But their second criticism, that he has done little to reduce pollution from automobiles and manufacturers, carries more weight.

Bush opposed a measure, defeated in the Senate last month, to substantially strengthen auto fuel-economy standards. His administration has also shown signs of ill intent toward a decades-old regime that requires industrial plants to upgrade smoke-scrubbing equipment when they make capital improvements.

If Bush wants to scrap this "new source review" program for power plants and replace it with his national caps, described above, fine. But if he cancels new source review for paper plants, refineries and other manufacturers without invoking new regulation, that's a problem.

The third beef greens have with Bush's Clear Skies plan is the biggest: The blueprint places only modest restraints on carbon dioxide emissions, it makes such reductions voluntary, and the cuts are not absolute but proportional to economic growth. Many scientists believe carbon dioxide emissions - from cars, power plants and manufacturers - are a major cause of an indisputable warming of the Earth's temperature in recent decades.

I'm with the Sequoia-huggers on this one. (I am a Sequoia hugger, in fact. I should disclose that I give money to the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy.) The evidence that carbon dioxide emanations are changing the planet is strong enough to require much more than voluntary cutbacks from the nation responsible for a fifth of the global discharge.

But that's no reason to reject Bush's power-plant plan out of hand. Air pollution is the most widespread industrial contamination. The president wants to cut emissions of the worst gases from the biggest industrial sources by at least two-thirds. Say yes, and then try to get something better.

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