Smokestacking the deck?

Photo: USGS.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This just in, from the Department of Near-Tautologies: Mandatory emissions caps rein in power-plant pollution more effectively than voluntary programs.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

That’s the conclusion being drawn from a report on the environmental records of the 100 largest electricity companies in the U.S., released last week by an alliance of bottom-liners and tree-huggers, including the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc., New Jersey’s largest utility.

Some folks might regard that conclusion as a no-brainer, but those folks don’t work for the Bush administration — it’s made “voluntary compliance” the central plank of its environmental platform.

Recall the words of Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett in a recent Grist interview in which she argued the virtues of voluntary programs: “[R]egulations tend to curtail creativity and innovation. Just think of the way, by analogy, most of us raise our families. Sure, you hold out some discipline for your children, but for the most part we try to inspire them to be flourishing young people through being role models, through encouragement, through exciting them about opportunities in the world before them.”

Most parents, however, still put the cookie jar out of reach — a “command-and-control” parenting strategy that Bush backers seem to favor when it comes to social issues.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

President Bush‘s down-with-command-and-control philosophy on the environment is perhaps most conspicuous in his widely criticized proposal for a voluntary cap-and-trade program to curb the growth of carbon-dioxide emissions. It’s also evident in his administration’s repeated efforts to scale back enforcement and gut mandatory emission-reduction programs such as new source review and the Clinton-era plan for cutting mercury emissions.

The new report contends that this strategy might demonstrate more trust in the kids than they deserve.

The study analyzed utility-industry emissions of four pollutants — nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and mercury — using data collected by the U.S. EPA and the Energy Information Administration from 1991 to 2002.

The data revealed a marked overall decrease in emissions of pollutants subject to mandatory federal regulations: NOx fell by 28 percent over the period studied, and SO2 fell by 35 percent. Both pollutants, targeted by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, contribute to acid rain and haze, and NOx is also a key ingredient in smog.

In sharp contrast, CO2, a greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change, has been the subject of a range of hopeful government initiatives and pleas, none mandatory, and — surprise, surprise — emissions of the pollutant rose by 25 percent between 1991 and 2002.

The report shows that “this notion that voluntary programs alone will work to address global warming in the utility sector is a farce,” said Dan Lashof, science director of NRDC’s Climate Center.

But, said Lashof, even more important conclusions can be drawn from the study, which found little correlation between the rate of emissions from utilities and the amount of electricity they produced.

Take this statistic: Fewer than one-fifth of the companies studied account for half of the utility sector’s total emissions output — including SO2, NOx, CO2, and mercury. And it’s not proportional to the amount of electricity those companies generate. For example, explained CERES spokesperson Nicole St. Clair, though Southern Company generated just four times more electricity than its smaller competitor Calpine, the former belched a shocking 6,300 times more SO2 than the latter. Likewise, American Electric Power generated 28 times more juice than Panda Energy, but pumped out 436 times more NOx emissions along the way.

What does this tell us?

“Good news and bad news,” David Gardiner, senior advisor to CERES and former assistant administrator of the EPA under Clinton, told Muckraker. “The bad news is that the regulations aren’t working uniformly: There’s a major discrepancy between the way our federal regulations are being implemented among different companies and in different states,” said Gardiner. “The good news is that companies like Calpine are making great strides in economically viable ways, and that if we implement stronger regulations uniformly nationwide, we will see deep cuts in these emissions.”

It’s no small issue: The EPA itself has estimated that NOx and SO2 emissions from power plants still cause some 30,000 premature deaths each year. This — combined with the EPA’s troubling announcement last week that more than 474 counties do not meet updated health standards for ground-level ozone, directly linked to NOx emissions — demonstrates, one might think, a need for some firm discipline.

Thankfully, there’s more good news, according to Gardiner: “More and more, polluting companies — and their shareholders, especially — are beginning to realize that dirtier power plants face disproportionate financial and legal risks compared to their cleaner competitors.” In the case of CO2, investors are starting to accept that caps are inevitable down the line, and they don’t like the uncertainty of wondering when it will happen and how much time they will have to prepare, he added.

This unease is prompting a growing number of shareholders to push corporations for more disclosure of environment-related data and a lowering of emissions, and even to call for more uniform federal enforcement of emission standards for a full spectrum of pollutants.

In other words, children can learn to behave, but sometimes it takes a little more than asking nicely.