Who let the smog out?

Photo: EPA

“I hate it that we’re always complaining,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former senior enforcement official at the U.S. EPA who resigned in 2002 to protest the Bush administration’s poor record on nabbing polluters. “So, looking on the bright side, I suppose you could call this better than nothing.” Schaeffer was referring to rules proposed last Thursday by the Bush administration that would cap emissions of sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain) and nitrogen oxide (which contributes to smog) at power plants in 32 states. Those proposed caps hardly registered on the Geiger counter of public opinion compared to the quake produced by the EPA’s proposed mercury rollback, which was leaked last Tuesday.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt had a far rosier assessment of the administration’s proposed rules than did Schaeffer, calling them “the largest single investment in any clean air program in history” — one the administration expects to cost industry as much as $5.5 billion annually when in full effect. Over the next 12 years, Leavitt claimed, the rules would result in “the largest reduction in air pollution in more than a decade.” Even the New York Times praised them as “good news,” saying the “positive initiatives on smog and acid rain” were overshadowed by the mercury ruckus.

The EPA had intended for the PR machine to spin in the other direction, according to John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The acid rain and smog initiative was supposed to overshadow that unconscionable mercury proposal. The EPA’s plan was to roll out all the rules together to soften the mercury blow. But we caught them off guard with a leak from inside the agency on Tuesday, and the whole thing exploded before they could control it.”

Walke argues that the good news isn’t nearly good enough to balance out the bad. “The smog and acid rain rules are better than nothing, but ‘nothing’ is letting an estimated 60,000 people each year die prematurely from small-particle air pollution associated with both sulfur dioxide emissions and nitrogen oxide emissions,” he said. “That’s not only wrong, it’s criminal.” The administration’s proposal would reduce that death toll, but Walke says it wouldn’t reduce smog and acid rain levels nearly as much as the EPA is authorized to require under the Clean Air Act. In fact, in September 2001, EPA officials presented a report to a utility trade association that projected control levels for smog and acid rain that would be required under the act by the end of the decade — levels considerably stronger than those just proposed.

The Bush administration’s current rules — essentially a regulatory version of Bush’s stalled Clear Skies initiative — would cap sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants at 3.2 million tons a year by 2015. That’s a two-thirds decrease compared with current emissions, which amount to 10.2 million tons per year, but still allows 1.2 million tons more pollution for three years longer than EPA officials had projected in 2001. Likewise, the Bush administration’s new proposal would limit nitrogen oxide to 1.7 million tons a year by 2015, compared to current emissions of 4.1 million tons, while the EPA in 2001 projected the need for a cap of 1.09 million by 2010.

“You have to peel the onion back one layer to see what they are doing — adopting the go-slow, weaker program,” said Walke. “The caps aren’t ambitious enough, and the time frame isn’t fast enough given that what’s at stake here is thousands of premature deaths.” What further concerns Walke is that the Bush administration’s proposed near-term mercury reductions — 30 percent by 2010, compared to the 90 percent reduction by 2008 that Clinton’s plan would have called for — would come entirely as a side benefit of installing controls for sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Filtration technologies for these two pollutants also trap some mercury, but in smaller quantities than technologies designed to filter mercury alone. “We were in shock when we saw the total number of mercury reductions the EPA is calling for in their plan. They want to get to 34 tons by 2010, down from 48 tons today. That 34 is the do-nothing number,” Walke said.

That is, 34 tons is precisely the amount of mercury reductions the industry would be expected to achieve as a “co-benefit” of the Bush administration’s proposed acid rain and smog reductions — without doing anything directly to control the neurotoxin. And it’s a whopping seven times higher than what was called for by the Clinton administration’s proposed cap. “What that translates to, quite simply, is not just hundreds of millions in savings for industry, but subjecting people — especially children — to higher risk of brain damage and developmental problems from mercury poisoning,” said Walke. “It’s a grotesque giveaway.”

Energy and Matter

The proposed clean-air rules weren’t the only big announcement to come from the Bush administration last Thursday. Despite assumptions by some that the energy bill was doomed after Senate Democrats (and a handful of rogue Republicans) prevented its passage at the end of this year’s congressional session, Bush and Co. say they’re working hard to resurrect it and ensure its passage when the next session begins in January. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he was encouraging Republicans in the Senate to rework a few key issues to get the two remaining votes needed for passage. A chief sticking point is concern over the fuel additive MTBE, which is widely known to contaminate drinking water supplies. The current energy bill grants MTBE manufacturers immunity from lawsuits over contamination, a provision that galled senators from non-MTBE-producing states.

Republicans are trying to pump up the energy bill.

“MTBE is the main issue that is preventing the Republican majority from passing the energy bill. Most of the senators who have been most vocal and passionate in their debating against the energy bill have focused on the MTBE problem,” said a staff member at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources who asked to remain anonymous. “The Republicans realized that they miscalculated the importance of this issue and believe that if they can address those concerns then — voila — they get their two votes.”

In reality, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. If the crafters of the bill change the MTBE provision to satisfy the concerns of senators who oppose it (moderate Republicans from the Northeast), they risk losing senators from MTBE-producing states. Moreover, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly favored the MTBE provision and will not be pleased with any efforts to change it. “We see no evidence at all that any senators are weakening or softening in their view on the bill, even with changes to MTBE,” said the staffer. “And certainly [such changes] would only anger lawmakers in the House.”

But House and Senate Republicans have other backroom deals in the works. “Are they pulling out other strategies to buy votes? Absolutely!” said the staffer. “That’s what makes this place tick. They’ll continue until they get the two votes that they need.”

So far, none of the wheeling and dealing has paid off — including the deal Senate Republicans have tried hardest to shop, which would funnel money from the Abandoned Mine Land Cleanup Program to, among other things, benefits for retired mine workers. The coal miners’ health fund would reap several hundred million from this deal — a fat carrot for senators from West Virginia, home to many United Mine Workers retirees.

Energy bill advocates also tried to buy the votes of the two Hawaiian senators with an offer to create a $3 million hydrogen research facility in Hawaii that would be named after the widely beloved late Hawaiian Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D). And the list goes on. “There are all kinds of goodies that will be offered — bridges and parks and highways and things like that — if people will commit to voting for the energy bill,” said the staffer.

Still, some environmentalists insist there’s nothing to be worried about. “This bill is a dead fish; the more it lies around, the more it stinks,” said Anna Aurelio, an environmental lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Every day we read through the 1,200-plus pages of this bill, we find more and more reasons why it should be tarred and feathered — more and more reasons why it would be really embarrassing for anybody who would even consider changing their vote.”

Adrenaline Russia

Ever since the erroneous assertion that Russia had rejected the Kyoto Protocol was corrected last week, the climate change talks in Milan have been abuzz with chatter about how best to cajole Russia on board. In a bid to demonstrate to President Vladimir Putin the economic benefits of ratifying the treaty, Italy, the host nation, announced plans to help finance projects to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its Russia-based factories.

Putin and Bush: Will these pals part ways on Kyoto?

Photo: White House.

This, of course, means very little to Russia. Even if it signs on to Kyoto, the country doesn’t need to worry about reducing emissions at its factories. In fact, Russia doesn’t need to make any emissions cuts at all. On the contrary, if it ratifies Kyoto, the nation will have loads of emissions credits to sell. The reductions Kyoto requires of each country are based on that nation’s 1990 emissions, and Russia’s economy has shrunk so much in the last 13 years that its emissions have dropped by 26 percent. Kyoto, in fact, could buoy Russia’s flagging economy with credit revenues, which is why the treaty has always been perceived as a sweetheart deal for the country. But now, the question is: how sweet?

When the protocol was crafted in 1997, it was assumed that the single largest market for the extra Russian credits would be the United States, the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter in the world. So when the U.S. pulled out of Kyoto, the market for Russia’s credits shrunk dramatically. With U.S. involvement, Russian economists figured the country could sell between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of credits per year. Now, the potential sales have dwindled to between $100 million and $200 million.

The big question for Russia, therefore, is where it can find a decent market for its credits. “The public campaign last week that convinced the world that Russia was waffling was in all likelihood designed to send a very clear message to the E.U. and Japan, saying they’d better step up to the plate to buy Russian credits,” said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “The way they said it publicly was, ‘We’re not sure it’s an advantage to our economy at all,’ but that was just diplomatic doublespeak. They’re just dickering for more money.”

But it’s not just Russia calling the shots. Currently, Russia has far stronger economic ties to Europe than it does to the U.S., and the importance of the E.U. as a Russian trading partner is only set to increase. That gives the Europeans an edge in the negotiations. In particular, Russia wants to channel its very large reserves of natural gas to central and western Europe. “Building these natural gas pipelines is an extremely high economic priority for the Russian government,” said Clapp, “so Europe can say, ‘If you want us to buy, you’ve got to cooperate [on Kyoto].'”

Another major economic goal for the Russians is membership in the World Trade Organization — and Europe has made it very clear that it will not support Russian entry unless the country ratifies the climate-change protocol. Add to that the ongoing pressure from other principal trading partners — namely, Canada and Japan — to jump aboard the Kyoto bandwagon, and U.S. pressure on Russia to resist begins to seem less and less formidable.