Clean Air Act Phobia
Posted March 17, 2011
It’s a sad state of affairs when members on both sides of the aisle in Congress seem to think it is a good idea to attack the Clean Air Act – the landmark law that Richard Nixon signed and George H. W. Bush strengthened. Yet the hits on the Clean Air Act just keep on coming in this Congress in spite of the Act’s incredible record of cutting deaths and illness caused by air pollution – a record that has earned the strong support of the American people and the admiration of others around the world.
Clean Air Act phobia appears to be a strangely contagious disease that keeps showing up in members’ pronouncements and draft bills – a disease impervious to information and common sense. Among the current symptoms of this disease are the attacks on the Act’s provisions that would require some of the world’s largest pollution sources to apply sensible methods to cut the amount of global warming pollution they dump into our atmosphere – the one atmosphere earth has – every year.
Over the past month or so, I and my colleagues have alerted readers to the latest attacks on the Act (here, here, here, and here, to provide just a few examples). The new attacks this week have been happening in the Senate: starting with Senator McConnell’s amendment to add a poison pill to an unrelated small business bill and joined by Senator Rockefeller with his own version the next day.
The latest development comes from Senator Max Baucus of Montana. The trade press reports (subscription required) that the purpose of his amendment is to codify EPA’s rule that exempts small pollution sources from certain Clean Air Act permitting rules. If the Baucus amendment did only that, there is a good case that Congressional action would make sense. But, whether intended by Senator Baucus or not, his amendment contains two very damaging provisions that go far beyond codifying the tailoring rule.
First, the amendment would permanently prohibit EPA from looking at global warming emissions due to changes in land use (like cutting down a mature forest or releasing huge amounts of carbon from soils) when calculating how much global warming pollution would result from a new industrial project. The scientific literature demonstrates that if not produced correctly, biomass energy can increase global warming pollution, not reduce it. In essence, this provision in the Baucus amendment would require EPA to lie to the public about the true global warming impacts of projects like a new power plant that burns trees for fuel.
Putting blinders like this on EPA would create large perverse incentives to pursue damaging projects, knowing that the cop had been ordered to look the other way. The provision would interfere with good biomass projects by preventing EPA from giving those projects credit for increasing the amount of carbon in soils and vegetation. Finally, the provision could prevent implementation of Congress’ renewable fuels standard by preventing accurate calculation of the emissions performance of biofuels. EPA has embarked on a lengthy process to develop scientifically robust methods of calculating emissions from biomass energy production and use. Gathering facts from interested parties and experts in an open, transparent process is the right way to address this issue.
Second, the Baucus amendment contains a provision that would permanently exempt even the very largest global warming pollution sources from the Act’s new source permitting requirements unless the source was also a very large source of other pollutants. While it makes sense to limit the new source program to large pollution sources, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the largest sources of global warming pollution just because they did a good job controlling other pollutants. Other provisions in the Baucus amendment assure that only very large sources of global warming pollution would be reviewed so this additional provision is unnecessary and harmful.
So I ask those in Congress who think that blocking the Clean Air Act’s global warming pollution programs is reasonable, to consider this. The damage from such bills would be inflicted on the truly unrepresented -- Americans and other people around the world. Letting polluters put their global warming wastes in the air today will harm our children and their children and their children’s children. Global warming pollution just doesn’t go away fast –half the carbon pollution we put in the air when our great-grandfathers fought World War I is still in the air today. And 1000 years from now, 15% of the pollution from those years will still be in the air. So Congressional attempts to block EPA from carrying out the Clean Air Act provisions to reduce carbon pollution are no minor missteps, easily remedied by a future Congress. No, these are actions that would condemn generations to the additional damage caused by pollution than can and must be avoided.
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