Bush's Dirty Plan for Clean Skies

Bush's plan to "reduce" emissions could actually mean more air pollution.

Bush's Dirty Plan for Clean Skies
Illustration By Alan Pogue

Last week President George W. Bush announced his plan to clean our polluted air, but environmental groups say the proposal is all smoke and mirrors -- and mostly smoke. And they warn that Bush's plan could be particularly dirty for Texas. Bush actually offered two plans -- the Clear Skies Initiative and the Global Climate Change Initiative, both involving legislative changes to the Clean Air Act and forming his response to the Kyoto Treaty, which his administration rejected last year. Clean Skies, aimed specifically at power plants, calls for cuts in emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury, by 73%, 67%, and 69% respectively. The Global Climate Change Initiative calls for reductions in "emissions intensity," and would tie rates to the nation's economic performance.

Both programs would employ a program of transferable "pollution credits," wherein facilities would be assigned a certain number of credits per ton of pollution created (the "cap-and-trade" program). Using this concept, the federal government would set a maximum number of allowances for the entire nation, and facilities that clean up their act quickly can sell their allowances to others that can't keep up. Under Clean Skies, allowances would be capped by 2010, and then lowered again by 2018. "Instead of the government telling utilities where and how to cut pollution, we will tell them when and how much to cut," said Bush at a press conference at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. "We will give them a firm deadline and let them find the most innovative ways to meet it."

But Bush's idea has two major problems, says the Cool Texas Network coalition of Texas environmental groups: One, it could allow dirty Texas plants to get even dirtier; and two, the Clean Skies plan could actually allow even more pollution than if the administration left the Clean Air Act intact. Tim Morstad of Public Citizen, a Cool Texas member organization, says plants in states that are already very clean will be able to sell their extra pollution credits to states that are dirtier. "As a cost/benefit analysis, [in] the state of Texas, it's going to be easier and cheaper for Texas businesses to buy permits to pollute than to make the necessary upgrades to clean up their facilities or build new ones," he said.

In response to such complaints, the Environmental Protection Agency referred us to the White House's Web site (www.whitehouse.gov), which only states, "Several analyses of trading under the acid rain program have concluded that the program did not result in local areas with higher emission levels."

While Clean Skies does call for reductions, EPA figures show that they will be less than current Clean Air Act targets, Cool Texas asserts. Under the current act, they say, by 2012, NOx would be capped at 1.25 million tons per year, SO2 at two million, and mercury at 7.5 tons. Clean Skies, by contrast, gives industry until 2018 to get to much higher caps: 1.7 million tons of NOx, 3 million tons of SO2, and 15 tons of mercury by 2010.

Moreover, says Cool Texas, since Clean Skies is directed only at power plants, the more than 17,000 other industrial facilities in the U.S. get off scot-free. The White House says that power plants account for 67% of all SO2 emissions, 37% of mercury, and 25% of NOx.

Bush's second plan, the Global Climate Change Initiative, is downright deceptive, Cool Texas says. The plan, which targets all industrial facilities, calls for reductions in "emissions intensity" of carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas, but not a reduction in actual overall emissions. "Emissions intensity" is Bush-speak for the amount of pollution emitted per million dollars of gross domestic product. Bush wants to lower intensity from 183 metric tons per million dollars GDP today to 151 metric tons per million by 2012. The problem is that the U.S. GDP grows almost continually.

"If you look at recent economic growth in Texas," Morstad said, "we have been growing at 7.7% annually. If Texas grows in the next 10 years at the same rate, Bush's plan allows for a 157% increase in emissions ... Even if we grow slowly, say 2% annually, there will be a 48% increase ... Under his plan, the only way to clean up is with zero growth."

Morstad says Bush's plan is particularly troubling in light of what he calls unwillingness to act by the state of Texas. As an example, he cites the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's recent global warming report (see "Baby It's Warm Outside," Feb. 1), in which recommendations for action were tepid at best. "The TNRCC released ... recommendations that deferred to the federal government, and here we have the feds not willing to take action," he says.

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