It’s a rather striking irony that, as our air grows cleaner, environmentalists’ complaints grow louder. Since 2001, they’ve been screaming that President Bush is “rolling back the Clean Air Act,” and that the resulting increase in air pollution will kill people by the thousands. Instead, every category of air pollution has fallen during the Bush years, with 2003, 2004, and 2005 showing the lowest levels of harmful ozone and particulates in the air since the monitoring of air pollution began in the 1960s. What exactly is going on?
A little background in is order. In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration sued dozens of electric utilities under a new and aggressive interpretation of the Clean Air Act’s arcane New Source Review (NSR) regulations. NSR was the epitome of the complicated, costly, and counterproductive regulatory regime. It required existing sources of pollution, such as power plants, to meet stringent new regulations if they made any substantial operating changes. This had the consequence of freezing old technology in place: Many plants avoided small upgrades that would have lowered their emissions and increased their electricity output, for fear that doing so would drag them into the NSR morass. Even the Progressive Policy Institute saw that NSR was a mess, calling in 2000 for it to be scrapped entirely and replaced with a market-oriented “cap and trade” system, in which firms able to reduce their emissions to lower-than-required levels could sell their “leftover” emissions allotments to other companies. Cap-and-trade systems have the virtue of concentrating emissions reductions among the firms able to undertake them most efficiently. And because firms can sell any emissions “credits” they don’t use, they have a strong market incentive to pollute less. A similar emissions-trading program has worked successfully to reduce acid rain in the northeast since 1990.
When the incoming Bush administration proposed to simplify NSR and adopt cap-and-trade, the environmental lobby went nuts, successfully blocking the administration’s “Clear Skies” legislation in Congress. So the White House decided to implement its new approach administratively through the EPA’s “Clean Air Interstate Rule,” which applied a cap-and-trade program to the midwestern and northeastern states where most of the nation’s coal-fired pollution originates.
That program has been in effect long enough for us to see the results, and they should fill any environmentalist with joy. A new report from the National Academy of Science concludes that the Bush system will likely prove just as effective in lowering air pollution as the regulation- and lawsuit-happy Clinton approach — and it will do so at a much lower cost. That should of course put an end to claims that the Bush administration is filling our air with deadly pollutants.
But don’t hold your breath. The environmental movement has proved time and again that it can’t take yes for an answer. Reducing air pollution has been the single greatest environmental-policy success of our time. Emissions are falling fast, and are going to keep falling. Despite more cars on the road and more drivers per capita, automobile emissions are falling 8 percent a year, and EPA models predict a further 80-percent reduction in car and truck emissions over the next 20 years. Power-plant emissions are going to follow a similar trajectory — and they’ll fall even faster if greens relax their reflexive opposition to nuclear power.
Yet the environmental lobby continues to act as though catastrophe were about to befall us, and has been especially shrill in condemning Bush’s record. Their intellectual bankruptcy is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by the fact that their current favorite idea for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is nothing other than . . . cap and trade. But when Bush applies the same policy to air pollutants, he is a despoiler of Mother Earth. It’s hard not to conclude that their real problem with the president is that he is a Republican.