No Price on Clean Air

Bush administration changes will benefit high-polluting manufacturing interests

In a disgusting move by a federal regulatory agency to satisfy the Bush administration’s political allies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has loosened restrictions on high-polluting industrial plants. The change to the “New Source Review” program will allow the worst air polluters to continue polluting at 1977 levels for many decades to come.

The Bush administration hailed the new law, which undermines the Clean Air Act of 1977, as a step to “encourage pollution prevention [and] provide incentives to install state-of-the-art pollution controls.” In fact, the effect of the law will be the exact opposite. Under the original grandfather clause, pre-1977 plants were exempt from modern pollution restrictions as long as the plants didn’t undertake any improvements. Without changes, when the plants became obsolete, their owners would have no choice but to make major improvements—and at the same time bring the plants up to modern pollution standards.

Bush’s changes to the law allow companies to boost profits by increasing efficiency while avoiding paying for pollution reduction. Almost all improvements in machinery will be considered “routine maintenance,” and thus not trigger the mandatory pollution-reducing improvements that they would have in the past.

Although there may be short-term reductions in air pollution as minor efficiency improvements are implemented, in the long-term the dirtiest and least efficient factories can continue polluting at current levels while making only those improvements that will increase their profits. The law is also destructive because it allows some smokestacks and machines to increase their emissions as long as the manufacturing plant overall remains below limits. In addition, changes to the Emissions Calculation Test Methodology will allow factories to use the highest-polluting 24-month period in the preceding decade as a measure of their actual emissions—making it easy to portray future emissions as a reduction, even if they are actually an increase from current levels.

This is unacceptable. Manufacturers and oil refineries that cannot afford to reduce pollution to today’s standards should not be operating in the first place. The government should scrap Bush’s New Source Review changes and instead force all factories that pollute above modern limits to clean up their acts. The EPA should enforce these limits, with high financial penalties if necessary. Many companies have put off environmental improvements for far to long, and the burden should not fall on the American people who breathe the polluted air.

Although shutting down inefficient and high-polluting companies may hurt them and their employees, it will in the long run benefit all Americans. Improvements in automobile and factory emissions during the 1990s helped counties in the San Francisco Bay area to cut the risk of cancer from air quality in half, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The risk of cancer from polluted air was reduced over the course of eight years from 356 in 1 million to 186 in 1 million. Similar improvements on a national level would lead to comparable reductions in cancer risks. Thus, higher costs to factories would lead to lower costs to the healthcare system and a better quality of life for everyone.

Not only would it be smart policy for the EPA to force companies to comply with modern pollution restrictions; it’s the EPA’s job. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must consider only requirements of public health and safety and may not engage in cost-benefit analysis when setting national air quality standards. The Bush administration’s new rule seems to skirt the court’s ruling, allowing polluters to pollute more in some parts of their plants as long as they reduce the pollution overall.

The EPA’s recent behavior directly benefits rich corporations—many of which contributed vast amounts to Republicans in the recent elections. It is very disappointing that the EPA, a well-conceived agency with a noble purpose, has been transformed into a tool for promoting the Republican agenda and for benefiting manufacturing interests.