week the Bush administration announced new
rules that would effectively scrap "new source
review," a crucial component of our current
system of air pollution control. This action,
which not incidentally will be worth billions
to some major campaign contributors, comes
as no surprise to anyone who pays attention
to which way the wind is blowing (from west
to east, mainly - that is, states that vote
Democratic are conveniently downwind).
this isn't just a policy change, it's an omen.
I hope I'm wrong, but it's likely that last
week's announcement marks the beginning of
a new era of environmental degradation.
background: The origin of new source review
lies in a big policy mistake 30 years ago.
The original Clean Air Act imposed strict
rules on new sources of pollution, but it
grandfathered existing power plants, refineries
and so on. The idea was that over time, as
old facilities closed down, strict rules would
become the norm.
happened instead was predictable: In order
to keep their exemptions, polluting industries
poured money into existing facilities rather
than build new ones. In an attempt to close
this loophole, the Environmental Protection
Agency began requiring companies that invested
in existing facilities to demonstrate that
they were merely doing maintenance, rather
than creating new capacity that was supposed
to face stricter regulation.
agrees that this was an awkward fix. It was
a recipe for endless legal battles between
companies and the E.P.A., and in some cases
it deterred investments that would actually
have made the air cleaner. Most experts also
agree on the solution: a so-called cap-and-trade
system, in which existing facilities are granted
emissions licenses that they can sell to others
if they succeed in reducing their own pollution.
This would end the litigation, and provide
businesses with broad-based incentives to
clean the air.
in the early years of the Clean Air Act, environmentalists
didn't trust market solutions enough to endorse
cap-and-trade. By the time they changed their
minds, it was too late. Polluters had lost
interest in improving the way the emission-control
system works, figuring that in a political
scene increasingly dominated both by money
and by conservative ideology they could buy
themselves the right to spew at will. And
so it has turned out.
the Bush administration says that it favors
a cap-and-trade system; it has even introduced
legislation to that effect. I could explain
the defects of the Clear Skies Initiative
- its conspicuous failure to deal with greenhouse
gases, the glacial pace at which it proposes
to reduce emissions of those pollutants it
does control (many estimates say that it would
actually allow more pollution than would a
strict enforcement of current law). But it's
a moot point: Last week's announcement is,
I believe, a signal that even Clear Skies
isn't going to happen.
from cynicism (which has been an almost infallible
guide to administration environmental policy
so far), how do I reach that conclusion?
one reason: If a cap-and-trade system is just
around the corner, why not wait and introduce
the whole system at once? As the E.P.A. press
release last week correctly declares, "under
the Clear Skies Initiative, NSR [new source
review] would no longer be necessary." But
then why did polluters so badly want an immediate
end to such review before a new system could
be put in place? And why was the administration
willing to accept lots of bad press for a
clearly anti-environmental move, if it was
seriously planning to impose new controls
in the next year or two? The obvious answer
is that both the polluters and top administration
officials know that Clear Skies is, figuratively
and literally, a smokescreen.
another reason: As long as new source review
was in effect, the regulated industries had
an interest in fundamental reform; a sensible
cap-and-trade system could have both reduced
pollution and increased profits. But now the
polluters have gotten what they want; they
would be hurt, not helped, by new restrictions.
There's no longer any basis for a deal that
clears the air.
officials still insist, of course, that they
plan to proceed with clean air measures. And
it's possible that they will eventually do
the right thing. But don't hold your breath
waiting. In fact, it might be a good idea
to breathe deeply now, while you still can.
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