Monday, July 11, 2011

From the NYTimes, 7/10-11


An Aggressive Ruling on Clean Air

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued a welcome and overdue rule compelling power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to reduce smokestack emissions that pollute the air and poison forests, lakes and streams across the eastern United States. The regulation reflects the E.P.A.’s determination to carry out its mandates under the Clean Air Act despite fierce Congressional opposition, and bodes well for progress on a host of other regulatory challenges the agency faces.

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The rule, which takes effect in 2012, would cut emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, and nitrogen oxide, a component of smog, by more than half by 2014 compared with 2005 levels. The E.P.A. administrator, Lisa Jackson, said the rule would improve air quality for 240 million Americans in the states where the pollution is produced and in areas downwind.

As is true of nearly every regulation spawned by the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act, the rule’s benefits will greatly outweigh its costs to industry — a truth routinely ignored by the act’s critics, most recently the Tea Party supporters in Congress. The E.P.A. estimates annual benefits at $120 billion to $240 billion, mostly from fewer premature deaths, hospital visits and lost work days associated with respiratory illnesses.

By contrast, the costs of new pollution controls and plant retirements are estimated at $800 million annually, on top of about $1.6 billion in capital improvements already under way in anticipation of the rule.

There were predictable complaints from industry lobbyists and some in Congress that the rule would impede economic growth. Those groups are likely to be even more critical of the rest of the agency’s clean-air agenda.

Over the next few months, the E.P.A. will propose new “performance standards” governing largely unregulated greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; issue a final rule mandating reductions in toxic pollutants like mercury; and propose new state and local health standards for ozone.

In addition, President Obama has asked that the agency, in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, set new mileage and emission standards for cars and light trucks manufactured from 2017 to 2025. An earlier round of fuel efficiency standards in 2009 remains Mr. Obama’s single most impressive environmental achievement, but he and the auto industry are nowhere near agreement on what the new standards should be.

Taken together, these rules should lead to cleaner air, a reduction in greenhouse gases and, in the case of the automobile standards, reduced dependence on foreign oil. Given the political obstacles, completing all these will be a remarkable achievement. The new power plant rule is a promising start.