Clearing the air on clean air

Remarkably, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently published a report that began with these words: “While emission of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are decreasing…” Reading on, it’s all downhill from there, naturally. NRDC, like environmental groups everywhere, assures us that we’re doomed to choke on all of the filth in the air, if climate change doesn’t incinerate us first.

Still, those ten words stand out because they are so rare. The golden rule among environmental groups is “never, ever admit that progress has been achieved–especially when Republicans are in power.” It’s awfully tough for those organizations to raise money if donors aren’t kept in a constant state of panic.

Putting the global warming debate aside for a moment, the fact is that emissions of all air pollutants, not just the two that NRDC happened to mention, have been steadily declining for a long time. Emissions have been reduced by about half over the last 30 years, and have continued to drop under the administration of that sworn enemy of environmental groups everywhere: George W. Bush.

In spite of these facts, environmental organizations continue to live in a fantasy land where every ecological move the President makes is bad, even when they admit it’s good. Consider NRDC’s recent reaction to the administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, which will reduce emissions from power plants by another 7 million tons per year.

In a December 12 AP story, John Walke, NRDC’s director of clean air programs sniffed, “The Bush administration is now staking its money on a bill in Congress that weakens and delays public health protections already provided under the current Clean Air Act, while forcing the EPA to delay public health protections under current law.”

What does any of that mean? Cutting power plant emissions by more than half weakens public health protections?

Environmentalists might fire back with an assertion that the administration’s proposal doesn’t “go far enough,” or “move quickly enough.” Unfortunately, that tired, old line has little to do with actual magnitude or timing. It’s solely based on the fact that the President’s name is printed with an “R” behind it.

Such reactions to the Interstate rule also serve to expose their duplicity or ignorance–take your pick–when we think back to comments about another air pollution initiative: New Source Review Reform.

When the Bush administration first proposed New Source Review Reform in 2002 (an initiative that began during the Clinton administration, by the by) environmental groups were incensed. The outraged reaction of Vickie Patton, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, was typical.

“The administration’s initiative would make sweeping changes to this program that will allow virtually all pollution increases from old, high-polluting sources to go unregulated and public participation to be excluded,” she said. “When implemented, [this] action will only grow pollution instead of slowing it by changing ‘new’ source review into ‘no’ source review.”

I’ll interject here to tell you that my day job is that of an environmental consultant, proudly working on the side of the dirty-rotten polluters for longer than I’d care to admit. When my brothers and sisters in the business and I read those kinds of statements, we collapse in hysterics. “Unregulated?” Environmentalists should buy a set of Federal Regulations, and then needs to find an empty garage to store them.

Environmental lobbyists ought to know better. If New Source Review was the sole means of controlling air pollution, Patton’s comments might be valid. But there are about half a dozen other air programs in place that prevent the sort of emissions increases she is alarmed about.

The Interstate Rule is merely the latest, and most restrictive, addition to layers of regulation that ensure that air pollution will continue to go in one direction only: down. In the alphabet soup of rules that industry has to contend with there’s NSPS, NESHAPs, ARP, PM-fine rules and a variety of state initiatives. New Source Review does essentially nothing to control pollutants that isn’t already addressed by those other environmental initiatives.

The fact is that New Source Review is, and has been, largely irrelevant. All it does is add another layer of superfluous paperwork with which the nation’s beleaguered industrial sector must contend. Presidents Clinton and Bush wanted to ease that burden because both understood that emissions will continue to drop with all of the other rules, both those in place and others on the way.

Yet one could still read an editorial in The New York Times on October 6, 2004 entitled “Cover Up on Clean Air” in which the paper continued to perpetuate the myth that New Source Review Reform is an unprecedented disaster. Apparently they don’t understand the Clean Air Act. There are no two ways about it: Discounting the dubious value of CO2 reductions, emissions of air pollutants have been continuously reduced in this country and the Bush Administration has ensured that the trend will continue downward into the next decade.

Rich Trzupek is a recepient of the 2004 Phillips Foundation Fellowship and is currently working on a project examining the effect of environmental regulations on small to mid-sized businesses.

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