- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

Poll after poll shows the public believes the nation’s air is getting dirtier. That’s flat wrong, of course.

Every major form of air pollution — carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, even particulate matter or dust — is down dramatically from two or three decades ago.

But in politics, perception is often what counts, and the media have by and large abnegated its role of skeptical reporting. So even the supposedly anti-environmental President Bush has been pushing a “Clear Skies” proposal, first proposed in 2003, aimed at a 70 percent reduction in the remaining air pollution by the year 2018. Mr. Bush included a strong pitch for Clear Skies in his State of the Union speech last week.

The proposal includes market-oriented trading that would effect the reductions far more efficiently than the old command-and-control favored by the environmental left. But most studies say the tighter standards will yield only diminishing returns. If the administration isn’t careful, the new system could just be a more efficient route to a very bad end.

Mr. Bush must use the bully pulpit to make it clear that the air, far from worsening, actually has been getting significantly better. Air pollution has been cut in half in recent decades even as the economy has more than doubled. This was achieved not just because of government regulation but the natural process of replacing older, polluting technology with newer, more efficient — and thus less polluting — technology.

And precisely because the low-hanging fruit have already been picked, further reductions will be far more difficult and expensive. That’s why it would make sense in any case to shift to a system that sets clear, enforceable but realistic targets and lets industry figure out how and how fast to get there.

Similarly, Clear Skies would allow industry to upgrade plant and equipment without triggering the inflexible “new source review” mechanism the Clinton administration used to bludgeon power plant operators and others into installing state-of-the-art pollution controls before the old equipment wore out.

This requirement was a classic case of making the best the enemy of the good. Not only did it drive up electricity prices, it gave many companies incentives to leave the old, polluting equipment in place.

The environmental left uses Clear Skies to push for even more draconian standards. Clear Skies would require a 70 percent reduction in mercury emissions. Environmentalists, predictably, demand a 90 percent cut, a fantastically expensive Utopian goal that would yield no measurable extra health benefit.

Worse, environmental lobbying groups insist that Clear Skies limit carbon-dioxide emissions. This would be a backdoor way to hitch America to the disastrous Kyoto Protocol negotiated by former Vice President Al Gore in 1997 to combat the supposed danger of global warming.

But CO2 isn’t toxic, so it has no place in this bill. And even when the Democrats controlled the Senate they blocked the Kyoto agreement by a vote of 95-0, recognizing it would be disastrous for U.S. economic health.

The administration may be kidding itself if it thinks Clear Skies will end the extensive litigation over Clean Air issues, often setting state against state, that has characterized the last decade. But by clarifying the standards, setting tangible goals and providing a market mechanism for rational action — companies that exceed the standards could sell credits to those that don’t, giving the latter time to comply — individual states would have less incentive to be at each other’s throats.

This is particularly important for the industrial heartland, which otherwise faces a possible economic meltdown at the hands of the environmental crazies over ever-shifting standards and unpredictable court rulings. Democrats like Michigan’s Sens. Carl Levin and Deborah Stabenow may be tempted to oppose Clear Skies on partisan grounds. But if they and their colleagues stay on the sidelines, the industrial heartland, and in particular the American auto industry, will continue its long, painful slide — eventually followed by the country as a whole.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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