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'Clear Skies': Bush's Gift to the Coal Burners
Published on Sunday, August 11, 2002 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
'Clear Skies': Bush's Gift to the Coal Burners

President Bush's vaunted "Clear Skies" plan for cutting air pollution, first floated last February, is now before Congress and the early reaction is skeptical. It ought to be, for the problems with Bush's approach to regulating electric utilities are fundamental and have not been fixed.

Forty-four senators have signed a letter telling the president his approach is not ready for prime time, and urging that he pull it back for further analysis and repair. White House hopes of having labor, minority and environmental groups assist in the rollout and lobbying have come to nothing.

Fairness requires acknowledgment that the Bush plan does indeed call for big cuts in emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and -- for the first time -- mercury by 2018. Its use of a cap-and-trade system, in which utilities could buy and sell pollution credits, has considerable potential.

But there are better ways, faster ways and fairer ways to accomplish the president's goals. Some of these are embodied in a bill prepared by Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, which would achieve similar emission reductions by 2008. That's the year Bush's plan would begin to make cuts; it's also the last year he can hope to be in the White House.

The president's leisurely timetable is a major shortcoming of his program, but a larger one is its inattention to the limitations of relying only on emissions trading.

This approach works well with pollutants whose harm is essentially nonlocal. A good example is carbon dioxide (which the Jeffords plan would limit, but the Bush program would not). Because it disperses around the planet and has global impact, where it is produced and by whom are not as important as the total output.

Certainly the pollutants addressed in Clear Skies have far-reaching effects, but they also have significant local and regional impacts on air quality and human health. As the administration likes to point out, overall emissions of sulfur dioxide did decline nicely under the trading plan implemented by the president's father. But more recently, attention has turned to that plan's creation of troubling "hot spots" around the country, where pollution has worsened.

Above all, the Clear Skies program is objectionable for offering coal-fired power plants an undeserved extension of a privilege they have historically abused.

These plants were exempted from the original clean-air legislation of the 1970s on the assurance that they were nearing the end of their useful lives anyway. Under current regulations, if utilities rehabilitate or expand these aging facilities, they're supposed to update pollution controls at the same time. Not surprisingly, many of the companies have preferred to duck those rules, prompting a crackdown from the last administration's Environmental Protection Agency.

These are the companies whose regulatory burdens the president proposes to replace with an honor system: Let them monitor and report their own emissions performance. Don't require any reductions before 2008. Until then, let the utilities increase their pollution output; afterward, let them decide among themselves who will pollute less and who will pollute more.

All in all, the Bush plan offers an endless sunny day for the coal burners -- and a hazy horizon for everybody else. No wonder its chances appear dim.

© Copyright 2002 Star Tribune


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