Meet the Family

“ACID RAIN” … grandfather of them all: Whenever critics savage the merits of selling the right to pollute, supporters invoke EPA’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) Acid Rain Program as a shining success story. After rural areas in the Northeast complained in the 1980s about dangerously high PH (acid) levels in their pristine lakes and streams, scientists concluded the contamination was due primarily to sulfur dioxide drifting hundreds of miles from belching power plant smokestacks in the Midwest.

Acid rain was linked to a host of problems, from killing fish to pitting car paint and destroying views in national parks. For humans, walking or swimming in water contaminated by sulfur dioxide it is not particularly dangerous, researchers said. But the pollutants that cause it form fine particles that can be inhaled deep into people’s lungs and have been linked to heart and lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, and premature death. But despite the scientific evidence of ill effects, industry balked at costly regulation, saying it wasn’t clear their emissions were the source.

To placate all sides, Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to create the nation’s first cap-and-trade program. Dangerous sulfur emissions from large power plants would be halved by 2010, while saving utilities a projected 20 percent in costs over traditional regulation. The program appeared to work perfectly. By 2007, three years ahead of schedule, sulfur dioxide emissions had been cut by 50 percent, at a savings of $2 billion annually to companies in today’s dollars.

Some of the reasons why it worked may sound familiar: the program created incentives for industry to invest in new technology and alternative fuel sources, with a level playing field ensured by continuous, verifiable emissions monitoring. Sulfur scrubbing equipment was about to come on the market anyway, automatic emission monitoring was available at the plants, and utilities were able to switch to burning either less polluting natural gas, or “low sulfur” coal being opened up in vast, new deposits across the country.

But have regulators halted acid rain? “No, we have not,” said Brian McLean, director of EPA’s office of atmospheric programs, and an architect of the cap-and-trade program. “We have made significant reductions, based on what was our best judgment at the time that was necessary. The PH [acidity] levels of lakes and steams improved, but they did not improve as much as we thought they would.”

In fact, while acid rain deposits have been reduced by about a third in some cases, there’s a long way to go.

“We haven’t finished the job, I guess is the best way to put it,” McLean said. “It just did not go as far as the science had indicated it would back in the 1990’s.”

The reasons are complex, he said, mostly tied to new findings about how sulfur is deposited and flushed out of soil and waterbeds. In response, EPA proposed an even steeper cap on SO2 a few years ago, as much as 70 percent. While there was some grumbling, most companies and every state but North Carolina agreed.

But three major utilities, including Duke Energy, better known for touting its desire to participate in a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program, sued to stop the new sulfur cap. The EPA is now working on revisions.

Earlier this month, McLean politely sidestepped answering whether he thought cap and trade was the best approach to achieve the huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions scientists say are needed to fight climate change.

“The important thing to remember is there are a lot of tools with environmental problems,” he said. “Cap and trade is one of those tools, and it can work very successfully in certain situations. I think it worked very well for acid rain. It works very well for large industrial facilities, and it works very well when the goals are clear, and the rules are clear.”