Energy & Environment

Ganging up on Gases

A multi-pollutant regulatory strategy just might reach the elusive objective of protecting the environment efficiently.
by | May 2001

For years, seasoned state and local pollution-control administrators have been yearning to prove they're ready to rethink how governments go about cleaning up the environment. They'll have the chance to do that in the next couple of years--provided they can attend to the touchy issue of global warming.

The scientific and policy debates are far from settled, of course, over just how much the worldwide climate is affected by industry's fossil-fuel emissions. And, amidst much media coverage this spring, President Bush backed away from a climate-change treaty. Nonetheless, it's clear to many state pollution-control chiefs that, sooner or later, the United States needs to start cutting back on greenhouse-gas emissions, primarily the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil-fuel combustion at electric power plants. A number of states have already begun putting together comprehensive strategies to cut back CO2, an emission that many scientists contend is a culprit in raising atmospheric temperatures. In the process, they're pioneering new multi-pollutant regulatory strategies that just might accomplish the elusive objective of protecting the environment as efficiently as possible.

If nothing else, governments should have learned by now that pollutant-by-pollutant regulation practiced over the past 30 years has forced American industry, small businesses and their customers to pay more than they should for environmental quality. The public's health is undeniably better because industrial and vehicle discharges to the air have been lowered to more tolerable levels. But uncertainty over the direction regulation was taking has driven the economic cost higher than was necessary.

Governments now have a chance to tackle the global problem with a comprehensive regulatory approach that deals with all the major and closely related pollutants that threaten air quality: carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. Coal- and oil-burning utilities are the prime contributors of these pollutants that have long been regulated by federal and state air-quality laws. Two years ago, the professional associations representing state and local air- quality regulators proposed "a menu of harmonized options" that agencies could use to blend new greenhouse-gas controls with ongoing efforts to wring even more of the three other contaminants out of the nation's air. Figuring out how to manage multiple pollutants simultaneously would create "a win-win situation for both the regulator and the regulated," says S. William Becker, the executive director for both the State and Territorial Air Pollution Control Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.

New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen has proposed a multi-pollutant clean-energy program that gives the state's three fossil-fuel power plants five years to cut their discharges of sulfur dioxide by 75 percent, nitrogen oxide 70 percent, mercury 75 percent, and carbon dioxide by 10 percent. That would take the state's CO2 emissions back to 1990 levels.

If it's done right, multi-pollutant regulation would set rules out in advance so industry could choose the most efficient ways to comply. For their part, governments could protect their constituents against immediate harm from smog, acid rain and health-threatening metals while also taking credible steps toward solving what's clearly a worldwide environmental problem. "There are major cost savings that come with dealing with the four pollutants in an integrated fashion," notes Robert Varney, New Hampshire's environmental protection commissioner.

State regulators are convinced that electric utilities would gladly accept greenhouse gas cutbacks in return for predictable regulatory guidelines. Like New Hampshire, Oregon, Wisconsin and New Jersey have inventoried greenhouse gas emissions and begun working on incentives to encourage industries to cut them. But Americans in most parts of the country aren't yet worried enough about global warming's consequences to accept CO2 controls that, no matter how designed, would most likely force energy prices upward. That's all the more true now that California's electric power woes make meaningful political debate over balancing energy and environmental imperatives all the more difficult.

President Bush endorsed CO2 controls during last year's campaign as part of a multi-pollutant strategy. This year, of course, the administration cited potential energy costs in backing away from that and the international Kyoto Protocol that the Clinton administration signed. In light of Bush's reversal, the New Hampshire legislature was expected to eliminate mandatory CO2 regulations from the governor's energy plan.

No state can afford to risk its industrial health by moving too fast on CO2 control in the absence of a common national policy. But with the controversy over the Kyoto treaty off the table, regulators might actually have a better shot over the next few years at designing effective global-warming programs. A multi-pollutant strategy makes both economic and environmental sense. As Varney notes, "the more we can do early on, the less painful it will be later."

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