Spitzer’s New York smog

Published March 1, 2002

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer claims the Bush administration is verging on a “wholesale weakening of the Clean Air Act.” In fact, Spitzer is the real threat to New York’s air quality.

The administration is considering the revision of some complicated rules that govern how coal-fired power plants may be modernized. Under the federal Clean Air Act, certain upgrades trigger a requirement that power plants install costly pollution-control equipment.

Spitzer, eight other attorneys general from Northeast states, and Senate Democrats vow a challenge if the rules are eased to allow plants greater flexibility to upgrade without adding equipment to cut air pollution.

They say a rules-easing will mean more air pollution wafting from Midwest power plants to Northeast states, making it more difficult for the states to meet stiff federal air quality standards.

Under the Clean Air Act, failure to attain those standards threatens the states’ access to the federal piggybank: It lets the feds withhold highway construction money.

“It is unprecedented that the federal government would undercut the laws that are necessary to our objective–clean air and clean water,” said Spitzer. “We will absolutely go to court to forestall these wholesale changes to the Clean Air Act, and we will act together.”

Not what it seems

It seems like perfectly reasonable, if not downright righteous, chest-thumping–except that it’s not.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a group of experts to study the phenomenon of so-called “ozone transport”–air pollution emissions from Midwest sources that supposedly contribute to Northeastern smog. And the Ozone Transport Assessment Group (OTAG) reported in 1997 there was scant evidence air pollutants from the Midwest measurably affected air quality in the Northeast.

Midwest air pollutant emissions may contribute to local air quality problems, OTAG noted. But beyond 100 to 200 miles, air pollutants are dispersed. OTAG found no evidence of a measurable air quality effect 300 to 500 miles away from the Midwest sources.

So why are Spitzer & co. saber-rattling over rule changes that won’t affect Northeast air quality?

Because the proposal offers a great opportunity to rampage as an environmentalist–using the Republican Midwest as the punching bag–without any political cost at home.

Actually improving air quality means limiting industrial and business expansion; cracking down on existing industrial, automobile, and truck emissions; improving mass transit; and pressuring employers and employees to reduce commuting.

Such actions are politically painful. Spitzer and his Northeast Democrat allies are unlikely to risk alienating constituents for unnecessarily cleaner air that scores no political points for them.

In a naive editorial in favor of Spitzer’s smog folly, The New York Times boldly declared, “Without question, pollution controls are expensive. But the country long ago said that it was willing to pay for clean air.”

Fine. If Northeast states really want cleaner air, they will need to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice for it.

Steven Milloy is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute 2001) and publishes JunkScience.com.