After more than two years of internal debate and intense pressure from industry, the Bush administration is announcing a new rule that will allow thousands of older power plants, oil refineries, and industrial units to make extensive upgrades without having to install new anti-pollution devices.
Industry is delighted.
Environmentalists are furious.
The original Clean Air Act came out of the Nixon Administration. Later, under Jimmy Carter, it was amended to require that any new power plant or factory be fitted with the latest emissions-control technology. This would cost industry a bundle, but there was a compromise. The requirement only applied to “new” power plants and factories, not ones already in existence in 1977 when the amendment was passed. Those would be exempt. Even if they did routine maintenance and minor upgrading to keep their operations going, owners wouldn’t have to install the latest pollution-control equipment.
Here’s the problem. Let’s say you own an old power plant. You don’t want to pay for new pollution-control equipment if you can avoid it, right? So you don’t build a new plant. You just keep your old plant running as long as you can, doing routine maintenance and upgrading when needed. A brand new plant might be more efficient. It might actually conserve energy and maybe even reduce pollution. But you’re not going to build it unless it saves you more than the cost of building it and installing the latest pollution controls.
So now comes the Bush administration and says, don’t worry. We’re going to interpret “routine maintenance” so broadly that you can make your plant practically new, and still not have to install new pollution controls.
Is this good or bad? In this era of blackouts and dangerous dependence on Mid-East oil, we do need efficiency. So to the extent this new rule encourages owners to modernize old, inefficient power plants and factories, it’s good. On the other hand, in this era of global warming, we need cleaner air. But this new rule widens the loophole that lets owners avoid state-of-the-art pollution controls. So, to this extent, it’s bad.
The bottom line: We get more efficient power, which may mean a bit less pollution per thermal unit. But we don’t get the cleaner skies we’d get if owners had to use the best pollution-control equipment.
I’ve got a better idea—and it’s something both the Bush administration and environmentalists might even agree to. Enact a pollution tax, that owners would have to pay according to how much gunk their plants and factories spewed into the air. That way, they’d have an automatic incentive to build more efficient plants and also install the best available pollution-control equipment.
But don’t hold your breath.
Or maybe you should, because the air is likely to get a lot dirtier.
Robert B. Reich served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor during President Clinton’s first term.