Tuesday, July 05, 2016

"Struggling for Air" is Worth Reading

Another excerpt from Struggling for Air by Richard L. Revesz and Jack Lienke, about a 1977 report of the National Academy of Sciences, when scientists were supposedly worried about the coming ice age. (There were questions about it, as smog was blocking sunlight before the era of clean air laws, but that's as far as it went.)

Struggling for Air is a good book, but it's kinda dry. It's subtitle is Power Plants and the "War on Coal," and its thesis is that administrations from Bush the 1st to Obama have all been trying to fix a flaw in the Clean Air Act of 1970 -- it regulated emissions for new power plants, but it allowed existing plants to be "grandfathered in." As long as an existing plant was only being repaired and maintained, it was exempt from the pollution standards of the Act.

Those who drafted the Clean Air Act believed, in part from industry testimony when the bill was being drafted by committee (led by Edward Muskie), that these existing plants had a lifetime of only 30-or-so years, and they would be retired in due course. The replacement plant would then have to meet federal standards.

By the way, there was strong support for the Clean Air Act of 1970 (which was actually a extension, but a significant extension, of the original Clean Air Act of 1963). It passed the Senate 73-0. And it was Nixon, a Republican, who signed it. And it was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, though probably not so much out concern for the environment -- he was much more interested in foreign affairs, and bogged down by the Vietnam War -- but to protect himself on the left from a possible 1972 presidential run by Edward Muskie (D-Maine), who was a strong environmentalist, and one of the first environmentalists in the Senate.

Anyway, coal companies, especially, used this loophole to their advantage, and to our respiration's disadvantage -- they kept the existing plants going far beyond their designed lifetimes -- up to 50 years or more, with patch upon patch. There was uncertainty from the EPA about whether a change in the plant was routine maintenance or an augment sufficient to make it a new plant, subject to regulation. How much of the plant can be changed before it's a new plant? It's like the old question about an ax: if you change the handle, and then later have to change the head, is it still the same ax?

By the way, there was no grandfathering in the Clean Water Act.

There was a constant struggle between industry, environmental groups and the EPA over this. Courts would decide one way, only for another court to vacate that ruling. Industry lobbyists and industry groups kept constant pressure on the EPA, through their legislators who, of course, they made very nice financial contributions to. 

Various presidents would push the EPA one way or the other. The EPA took several years to decide some things or implement changes requested by Congress, or even to write requested reports. 

Bottom line is there was much more pollution -- SO2, NOx and mercury -- emitted than anyone ever thought there would be. And that's true for CO2 also, because if corporations had been forced to update existing plants, it would have been with more efficient equipment and technology, and the plants wouldn't have burnt as much coal, so there would have been less CO2 produced along with fewer of the traditional pollutants. But no one knows how much less -- it's impossible to calculate. 

More people died prematurely because of this loophole, and fish and babies were exposed to higher quantities of mercury. There were more heart attacks and more asthma attacks. 

So the big three programs from the Obama administration -- the Transport Rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and the Clean Power Plan -- weren't and aren't a "war on coal" -- they were all intended to close loopholes in the Clean Air Act and regulate pollution as Congress intended when it passed the Act in 1970, and amended in 1990.
The authors of this book also write that CO2 regulation fell under the Clean Air Act, since the EPA's charge was to identity and regulate emissions that had adverse effects "on public health and welfare." Maybe CO2's effects weren't clear in 1970, but they were by 1990, and in 2007 the Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ruled that CO2 met the definition of a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, meaning the EPA was finally obligated to regulate it. 

The authors of Struggling for Air are environmental lawyers, and they write like lawyers, with every detail included and properly cited. I found the first half of the book slow going, but when they got to CO2 in the last couple of chapters it was easy going, because I know more about that. But I learned a lot from this book, which has only 163 pages (not counting 52 pages of Notes containing the citations), and I'm glad I read it.

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