issue guide: Clear Skies Act
Background & Facts
A bit of air history
National environmental laws, such as the Clear Skies Act, seem commonplace today, but the Clean Air Act on which the new act is based, was revolutionary when it was first enacted in 1970. Before, efforts to improve air quality were thought to be a state and local responsibility. Until the Clean Air Act, no cross-state policy for reducing air pollution was considered even though air - and any pollution it may carry - doesn't respect state boundaries. Changes to the law in 1977 (adding New Source Reviews) and 1990 (seeking reductions in acid rain) strengthened the act's reach.
What the Clean Air Act says
The Clean Air Act covers a lot of ground. Among its goals - including cutting down on acid rain and protecting the ozone layer - its main objective is to lower the amount of pollution in the air we breathe.
It does that by telling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set standards for suitable air pollution levels. (Since 1970, the EPA has set standards for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (soot/dust), nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead.) States then have to create plans to move toward compliance with those standards. Those plans - called "state implementation plans" or SIPs - have to themselves comply with federal regulations and be approved by the EPA.
A big piece of the Act's regulations - and one environmentalists say is its strongest tools in cutting down pollution - are "New Source Reviews" (NSRs). Under NSRs, when a power plant makes changes that increase the emissions of any pollutant, those alterations must be outfitted with new controls that meet the latest pollution standards. Because the law is not air tight in defining when upgrades require New Source Reviews and when they are just "routine maintenance," the EPA and utility companies often end up battling out NSR requirements in court. The EPA has sued 17 utilities for NSR violations. (CSR)
Decreases in air pollution since 1970
From 1970 - 1998, most pollutants under EPA regulation decreased, including carbon monoxide by 31%, sulfur dioxide by 27%, particulate matter (PM-10) by 71% (smaller particulate matter - PM2.5 - was just recently regulated as well), and lead by 98%. Nitrogen oxide emissions, however, have gone up by 17% (although most of that increase happened in the '70s). See cJ's fact page on air pollution.
What Clear Skies proposes
Clear Skies would bring power plant* emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury down by an additional 70% by 2018 (in two phases) (EPA):
|pollutant||in 2000||1st phase||2nd phase - 2018|
|11.2 million tons||4.5 million tons (by 2010)||3 million tons (73% reduction)|
|NOx||5.1 million tons||2.1 million tons (by 2008)||1.7 million tons (67% reduction)|
|Mercury||48 tons||26 tons (by 2010)||15 tons (69% reduction)|
It would meet those goals by cutting out many of the regulations in the Clean Air Act, including NSRs, and putting a "cap-and-trade" system in their place. Under cap-and-trade, a maximum cap on emissions is set for a specific deadline. Power plants are then given “allowances” - each allowance equal to one ton of pollution - which are controlled by the government and reduced over time. If a power plant is able to lower its emissions even further below the cap through its own innovation and creativity, the plant can sell its extra allowances. If the plant cannot meet the caps, it can buy allowances from other power generators.
*Although power plants aren't the only producers of those pollutants, they do produce 67% of the country's sulfur dioxide, 41% of its mercury, and 22% of its nitrogen oxide pollution. (WP)
More about the emissions
where they're from and why they're not so nice...
Nitrogen oxides are created by burning fuels, the main manmade sources being motor vehicles and electric utilities. High levels of nitrogen oxides can cause respiratory problems in humans and contribute to acid rain, polluted water, smog, and global warming. (EPA)
Sulfur dioxide forms when fuel containing sulfur—such as coal and oil—is burned, when gasoline is extracted from oil, and when metals are extracted from ore. Utilities and industries are its main sources. Heart and lung problems—particularly asthma—are made worse by sulfur dioxide, and it can also cause acid rain and smog. (EPA)
Mercury in its manmade form is released mainly from power plants, mining operations, and waste incinerators. Mercury in the air becomes a problem when it enters water; it then becomes poisonous, and high intake through eating of fish—or eating animals that eat fish—can cause health problems in humans. (EPA)
Other proposals out there
Members of Congress have introduced other bills that would cut down on pollutants, but at a faster rate than Clear Skies; Clean Air Planning Act, Clean Power Act, and Clean Smokestacks Act (sometimes referred to by the names of their sponsors - Carper, Jeffords and Waxman, respectively) are three that are popular with opponents to Clear Skies.
Some of those bills also set limits on the emission of carbon dioxide, the gas environmentalists say is largely responsible for global warming. Other bills that deal just with just carbon dioxide and global warming - most notably the McCain-Lieberman bill - could also catch Congress' attention this year. Then there's Kyoto - the international treaty on global warming - which Congress has not approved and is likely not to approve in the near future. See more on global warming.
On the regulation front
Some of the changes the administration is looking to make through Clear Skies have already happened through regulation.
Environmentalists objected when the EPA loosened criteria on the kinds of upgrades that require New Source Reviews - however, a federal judge blocked those rules from ever going into effect (WP) with a federal appeals court eventually dumping the rules altogether (WP). (No word on whether the EPA will appeal that ruling.)
More happily for environmentalists, in March 2005 the EPA set new goals for power plants to bring down their smog emissions. With the new rules, sulfur dioxide emissions should come down 73% by 2015, and nitrogens oxides by 61%. (WP and USAT) A July 2006 report from the National Academy of Sciences gave the administration's new rules a lukewarm vote of confidence - saying they'd bring pollution down as much, or more, than were brought down during the Clinton era, although the smog may linger in some areas longer than in others. (WP)
Just as it's easier to make changes by regulation, it's also easier for regulatory changes to be challenged by environmentalists in court (see two paragraphs above). For that reason, the administration still had an incentive to push for Clear Skies to be passed.
Update: citizenJoe wrote the above paragraph in 2005, but in a surprise twist in 2008, EPA's 2005 regulations were knocked down in court - from a lawsuit brought by industry, not environmentalists (WP). In December a second court, however, said that while the EPA came up with a new set of regulations, the 2005 regulations should continue to be used (NYT).
But still enforcing the law:
In spite its campaign to change the Clean Air Act and the law's tough emissions rules, the administration is still going after power plants that are breaking the law - as this Washington Post article reports.
Updated December, 2008.
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