The Bush administration announced last week that it wants to allow aging, coal-fired power plants to upgrade their facilities without installing costly air pollution-control equipment.
Environmentalists, politicians from Northeast states and their allies on Capitol Hill and in the media are going nuts. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said,"the Republicans new motto was to regulate softly and carry a big inhaler."
It’s an amusing comment, but the real joke is the notion that the controversy is about clean air and public health -- it’s not.
First, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York Times and other eco-handwringers gag reflexively on anything that eases, in the slightest, the use of fossil fuels. So their squawking is to be expected.
What’s making this Bush administration proposal a hot political issue (aside from the Democrats smarting from their recent election losses), however, is what’s at stake for the Northeast states’ economies and, perhaps more importantly, their politicians.
The federal Clean Air Act requires new power plants to install the "best available" air pollution control technology. Aging plants, however, are exempt from this requirement unless improvements to extend a plant’s life are made. This creates -- in eco-think, anyway -- a "new" source of emissions.
The enviros would like to have the so-called "new source review" provisions interpreted so that virtually any change to a power plant triggers the requirement to upgrade its pollution control equipment. The sympathetic Clinton administration began implementing this agenda in 1999 through aggressive enforcement policies.
Opponents of the new source review proposal shriek about it resulting in more air pollution wafting from Midwest power plants to already smoggy Northeast states. They say this makes it more difficult for Northeast states to meet stiff federal air quality standards.
The crux of the matter is that failure to attain those standards threatens the Northeast states’ access to the federal piggybank.
The Clean Air Act permits the federal government to withhold money for highway construction if federal air quality standards are not met.
At face value, the concern of the Northeast states seems perfectly reasonable, if not downright righteous -- except that it doesn’t square with the science.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a group of experts to study the phenomenon of so-called "ozone transport" -- air pollutant emissions from Midwest sources that supposedly contribute to smog in Northeast states.
The Ozone Transport Assessment Group reported in 1997 that there was scant evidence that air pollutants from the Midwest measurably affected air quality in the Northeast.
OTAG noted that Midwest air pollutant emissions may contribute to local air quality problems. But beyond 100 to 200 miles, air pollutants are dispersed. OTAG found no evidence of a measurable air quality effect 300 to 500 miles away from the Midwest sources.
Northeast politicians know they can’t simply take these facts lying down. They know if they can’t blame Midwest states for Northeast air pollution problems, the Northeast will have no one to blame but itself.
Northeast states would then have to act on their own to improve their air quality or risk losing federal highway money --both alternatives economically and politically painful.
Improving air quality means limiting industrial and business expansion; cracking down on existing industrial, automobile and truck emissions; improving mass transit; and pressuring employers and employees to reduce commuting.
Since such actions can be an economic and political kiss-of-death, Northeast politicians (especially Democrats) would like nothing more than to shift blame, costs and painful politics to the Midwest (where Republicans dominate).
The irony, though, is that if the Northeasterners succeed, Northeast air quality won’t improve; only the Midwest’s will.
The New York Times editorialized about easing new source review when the proposal was first broached last year saying, "Without question, pollution controls are expensive. But the country long ago said that it was willing to pay for clean air."
If Northeast states want cleaner air, they will need to stop blaming the Midwest and decide how much they are willing to sacrifice for it.
Steven Milloy is the publisher ofJunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001)