May 08, 2002 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Full of holes 

Bush air pollution policy fails the acid test

Now that spring is breaking out, what’s not to love about “Clear Skies”? One thing, maybe: George W. Bush has slapped the term on his latest attempt to sell Americans on “market-based” environmental cleanup and the virtues of fossil fuels.

            Nothing new here for Bush; he let oil and markets rule the big skies of Texas. Now with his federal initiative --- aimed at retooling the Clean Air Act and its regulatory style --- he’s sending clouds over New York and its environmental movement.

Bush trumpeted Clear Skies on Earth Day, April 22, in the Adirondack town of Wilmington. The choice of stage helped George Pataki’s act during a gubernatorial election year, but Bush sought wider political gains by focusing on a regional scourge: acid rain.

            At first blush, Clear Skies sounds ambitious and comprehensive. A White House backgrounder says the approach will “replace a cycle of endless litigation with rapid and certain improvements in air quality.

            As Bush outlined it, the initiative would:

            • cut sulfur dioxide emissions 73 percent, to 3 million tons in 2018;

            • cut nitrogen oxide emissions 67 percent, to 1.7 million tons in 2018;

            • cut mercury emissions 69 percent, to 15 tons in 2018;

            • cut “greenhouse gas intensity” by 18 percent over the next decade.

            Several things pop out. First, there’s the recurrent date 2018, suggesting that Clear Skies actually means Go Slow. Then there’s stealth language like “greenhouse gas intensity,” i.e. the ratio of greenhouse gas output to GDP. Attacking intensity as opposed to absolute levels of greenhouse gases could have a perverse effect. Thus a recent Pew Center on Global Climate Change report says Bush’s “18 percent reduction in emissions intensity between now and 2012 will allow actual emissions to increase 12 percent over the same period.”

            Bush also proposes to replace direct controls --- for example, forcing the installation of anti-pollution equipment --- with “cap-and-trade,” a.k.a. “pollution trading.” Cap-and-trade would allow the operator of a dirty plant to buy unused credits from the operator of a cleaner plant. Such deal-making might lead to lower emissions overall. But by allowing a dirty plant to keep on polluting, cap-and-trade can harm local environments and populations.

            Moreover, Bush’s Clear Skies would relax some current standards. Take one of the worst: mercury, a pollutant that affects the nervous system and is especially harmful to fetuses and young children. A Sierra Club rebuttal to Clear Skies notes that under current law and regulations, mercury emissions could be cut “to between five and 15 tons by 2008, as much as a 90 percent reduction per plant.” By contrast, says the Club, Bush would cut mercury emissions by only half as much, and take longer to do it.

            There’s also a big hidden agenda-item: Bush is making a sneak attack on “New Source Review” or NSR, a powerful regulatory anti-pollution device.

            In line with the 1970 Clean Air Act and later amendments, NSR was aimed at phasing out old dirty power plants. It’s supposed to work like this: When an old plant is “retired” or changed over to new technology, the new facility must conform to the latest standards. NSR does allow for routine maintenance.

            But what’s routine and what’s not? Some environmentalists and regulators charge that utilities sometimes do major renovations under the guise of “maintenance and repair.” For example, earlier this year, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed suit against Niagara Mohawk (NiMo) and NRG Energy Inc., charging their Dunkirk and Huntley coal-fired power plants in Western New York were violating the Clean Air Act by exceeding current emissions limits. (The plants, which NiMo owned and operated for years, were sold to NRG in 1999.)

            According to Spitzer’s news release, NiMo carried out “major modifications at the power plants,” including the replacement of a turbine and an upgrade of a boiler. These modifications, said Spitzer, triggered New Source Review; thus NiMo and NRG Energy should have brought the plants into compliance with the new regs, or shut them down. (An NRG spokesperson supplied us a written statement from the company. NRG, says the statement, “has been working diligently” with NiMo and state regulators toward an out-of-court solution.)

            For similar reasons, Spitzer has taken legal action against Rochester Gas and Electric’s Russell Station, a coal-fired plant in Greece. Russell Station is a small plant and does not contribute much pollution, says RG&E spokesperson Mike Power. He adds RG&E has done only routine maintenance at Russell and therefore has not stepped over the regulatory line. In any case, says Power, RG&E is still in discussions with Spitzer’s office.

            What will be Russell’s future? Will it close? Will it be made cleaner? Power says it could be converted to low-sulfur coal or refitted with catalytic devices to remove oxides of nitrogen, etc.

Oddly or shrewdly, the new White House initiative doesn’t dwell on NSR.

            Bush allies have been explicit and thorough on this point, however. In a recent New York Times op-ed, for example, A. Denny Ellerman and Paul L. Joskow of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research launch a full-frontal assault on NSR. The concept, say Ellerman and Joskow, is “an outdated and obstructive feature of the Clean Air Act” that “never made much sense.” They fall back on a market syllogism: It’s difficult and expensive to build new plants. It’s relatively easy and cheap to maintain and upgrade old ones. Therefore, the electric utilities are prone to keep the old plants up and running. And that inclination, it is suggested, should be our command.

            But all that aside, Bush did well to focus international attention on the Adirondacks.

            The region’s 2,000-plus lakes and ponds are especially vulnerable. The region is downwind from industrial pollution sources --- including old fossil fuel plants in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region (like the Huntley and Dunkirk plants) that were “grandfathered” by federal law. And Adirondack soils and bedrock don’t have the alkaline “buffers” which chemically neutralize the acidity.

            The problem is as widespread as it is severe. Studies done for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the 1980s found that 25 percent of Adirondack lakes and ponds were heavily affected, and that almost half were at great risk. Anti-pollution efforts have changed the data for certain pollutants --- but Adirondack waters are still in mortal danger.

            Still, as Bush spoke in the shadow of Whiteface Mountain, he widened a chasm in the statewide environmental movement.

            On one side of this chasm is the Adirondack Council, which stood with Bush at the Whiteface photo-op. (Also on this side are the Nature Conservancy and the Student Conservation Association, both of which Bush thanked in his remarks, plus some other fishing and hunting organizations.)

            Council spokesperson John Sheehan justifies his group’s support. Clear Skies, he says, “has the fastest cuts, it’s the least expensive, and it’s way to get the Midwestern plants to agree.” The initiative, he says, is very close to a bill the Council supported in the mid-1990s, one drafted by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan.

            But is consorting with Bush a political problem for the environmental movement? Sheehan turns the question around. Some national groups, he charges, are reflexively anti-Bush and will avoid doing anything that gives the man credit. “Asking for ‘perfect’ is a good way to get nothing,” says Sheehan. It’s “gratifying” that someone is doing something in Washington, he says.

            Things look different over at the Sierra Club --- one of the groups Sheehan criticizes.

            “Their approach,” says Albany-based Sierra Club spokesperson John Stouffer, referring to the Adirondack Council and friends, “seems to be to move to the lowest common denominator to pass something.”

            Stouffer reserves his harshest criticisms for Clear Skies, though. He acknowledges the Bush proposal mirrors the old Moynihan bill; but both, he says, “would step up reductions very slowly.” The problem, says Stouffer, is that the Moynihan bill, now almost a decade old, is based on a now-obsolete understanding of the air-quality problems we face.

            Nor is the Sierra Club isolated on this issue, according to Stouffer. Allied groups, he says, include Environmental Advocates, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the American Lung Association.

            This coalition is pushing a bill by US Senator Jim Jeffords (Independent-Vermont) as an alternative to Bush. The Jeffords bill, S.556, would mandate deeper reductions in sulfur and nitrogen compounds. Most important, it also would cut carbon dioxide emissions --- a greenhouse gas the Bush plan conspicuously underplays.

The American Lung Association is a stand-out on this issue; its involvement backs up John Stouffer’s reminder that clean air policies are about “public health threats” as well as acidified lakes.

            With Environmental Advocates and NYPIRG, the Lung Association issued a report in 1999 that detailed the problems. Dirty Power on the Rise in New York says this state “has the dubious distinction of having some of the most unhealthful air to breathe in the nation.” The New York City area is worst off. But smog and ground-level ozone are troublesome statewide, as is “particulate matter” pollution from fossil-fuel power plants and diesel trucks and buses.

            Many studies, says the report, “have linked particulate pollution with premature death… aggravation of asthma, and decreased lung function… In New York State alone, over 3,000 lives are cut short each year due to fine particulates.” The report draws special attention to mercury. “Benefiting from the Clean Air Act loophole, New York’s 21 dirtiest power plants released over 2,000 pounds of mercury between 1995 and 1997,” it says.

            RG&E’s Russell Station is on the list of 21. Its sulfur dioxide emissions, to cite one category, are around one-third those of the Huntley plant --- but still nothing to sniff at. And don’t forget, we’re downwind of the Dunkirk and Huntley plants, and lots more like them in the Midwest.


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