Study Recommends Sulfur Pollution Tax

Emphasizes Incentives Over Regulation

By imposing a multi-billion dollar tax on polluting industries, the government could save a substantial number of the estimated 53,000 lives lost annually as a result of pollution, a group of researchers from Harvard and MIT said yesterday.

In their study, entitled, "Health Effects of Fossil Fuel Burning--Assessment and Mitigation," the researchers proposed the imposition of a tax on each pound of sulfur released by industrial plants in the country. At current levels, the proposed tax would raise $53 billion, which the authors of the study would rebate to citizens living near polluting plants.

The problem of sulfur pollution and the need for effective control policies will increase as the country shifts from oil to coal usage. Richard Wilson, professor of Physics and researcher at Harvard's energy and environmental policy center, said yesterday. "As the country prepares to burn coal more extensively, we have very little margin for safety." he added.

Calling current policies of direct regulation ineffective, David Gordon Wilson, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and one of the authors of the study, said, "There are cases when you should directly regulate, and cases when you should regulate indirectly." Citing past attempts at pollution control, he added. "The government tends to do the wrong thing."


He said "ridiculously restrictive policies are largely responsible for current problems in the auto industry" and that such difficulties will spread to other industries. Strict government regulations "convert engineers to lawyers" as companies are encouraged to try and get around pollution reduction rather than develop effective technology, he added.

Monitoring Procedures

In contrast, the researchers suggest a sulfur tax that would range from 50 cents a pound in rural areas to $3 in cities. Monitors would be set up at the 1200 biggest power plants, steel mills and factories in the nation to measure how much pollution they emit.

Smaller businesses would have to pay a tax based on a the sulfur content of the fuel they burn. They could escape the tax only if they prove they are not giving off sulfur.

Wilson called the plan a "modified free market" saying industries need "a carrot, and not a stick" to reduce their pollution output.

Money Talks

The study says the proposal would be effective in the short run because "taxation, once in effect, is an immediate economic loss that the polluters will try to reduce."

The study adds that long-term reductions will result from increased innovation in pollution-abatement technology. "The incentive to use new technology in production or new waste treatment facilities to cut down on pollution is thus spontaneous," the report stated.

The researchers recommend that the revenue raised from the tax be given back to residents living near the plants. Wilson said such a plan would be progressive because poorer people tend to live in areas with high rates of pollution.