Clean Skies initiative raises many questions

Published April 1, 2002

President George W. Bush’s “Clean Skies” initiative, which some critics have dubbed “Jeffords-lite,” calls for a roughly 70 percent reduction by 2018 of emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides–already labeled pollutants under existing Clean Air legislation–and targets mercury (Hg) as well. The plan permits emissions trading and provides lavish tax and research-and-development incentives.

One set of questions sure to be asked when Congress considers the package concerns costs and benefits. Will EPA tell us where its numbers come from? Do the plan’s marginal costs exceed its expected marginal benefits? How clean is clean? The 1990 Clean Air Act considered a limit of 10 million tons/year of SO2 emissions more than adequate; what has changed?

What is the natural, background level of each pollutant targeted by the Bush initiative? A 30 ton /yr reduction in Hg emissions, to 15 tons/yr, doesn’t cut much ice when total U.S. emissions are 150 tons and the world total somewhere near 4,000 tons. With pollution traveling across oceans, are China and India going to reduce coal use and emission intensity?

Then there are the political questions: The tighter sulfur standards require scrubbers on all coal-fired plants, including those burning low-sulfur coal. How will this play in Wyoming and with the railroads? It makes lignite uneconomic; how will North Dakota and Texas react? The end of cheap electricity based on coal generally will hurt the Midwest.

I look forward to some interesting discussions in Congress next year.

Ironically, the increased costs of reducing pollution translate directly into more use of energy … and, inevitably, more emissions of CO2.