A historic moment for the Clean Air Act

How it arrived and how much it matters for the climate.

  • The Boardman Coal Plant in Oregon will stop using coal by 2020, thanks to the new Clean Power Plan.

    Portland General Electric
 

In April 1974, a storm soaked Pitlochry, a small town in Scotland. It set a world record, not for rainfall but for pH: The rain was as acidic as vinegar. Sulfur dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants had infiltrated clouds and fallen with the rain, dissolving into sulfuric acid. It was a dramatic illustration of a global problem. Acid rain killed fish in Northeastern U.S. lakes. It peeled paint and varnish from buildings. A 1986 Los Angeles Times story reported, "Even galvanized steel cannot escape destruction."

The problem was scary but solvable. Acid rain, along with urban smog and the deteriorating ozone layer, induced President George H. W. Bush to propose sweeping changes to the Clean Air Act that Congress passed in 1990 – the most thorough revision of the law since 1977, and a historic moment for environmental policy. The amendments included a bold policy experiment designed to slash sulfur-dioxide pollution – a market-based system now known as cap-and-trade. By 2012, emissions were down 80 percent. Acid rain is mostly a scourge of the past.

No administration has proposed an update of such magnitude since. Nevertheless, this June, when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the first federal plan to limit carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants, she signaled another watershed moment. The EPA's new "Clean Power Plan" would reduce carbon emissions on a state-by-state basis, averaging 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, to address an even more menacing global problem: man's fossil-fueled disruption of the climate.

"The plan is the last major thing that can be done under the existing Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gases," says Bill Pedersen, an attorney and air policy expert.

The coal industry will suffer some, and no doubt fight the cuts. Realistically, though, the EPA could no longer not regulate carbon dioxide. In 2003, after the Bush administration's EPA claimed the agency lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a coalition of states, cities and environmental organizations sued. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the states' favor, forcing the EPA to determine if greenhouse gases endangered human health and welfare. In 2009, the agency affirmed that they did, triggering a requirement to regulate them.

In a more functional world, Congress would have amended the act after the 2007 decision, giving the EPA a clear roadmap for controlling carbon, just as it did for sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. Congress could have established a carbon tax or nationwide cap-and-trade program. That would have been like taking the carpool lane to carbon reductions – fast and direct. Instead, the EPA was relegated to back roads with no phone signal, rife with potholes and detours, searching for a cost-effective, legal way to regulate carbon within existing law.

Each turn it made drew a lawsuit. The agency was sued by a coalition of industry groups, including coal, over the so-called "endangerment finding" and its legal authority to regulate carbon from cars, trucks and power plants, but prevailed. It was sued again over the "tailoring rule," an attempt to subject only the largest new industrial sources to permitting, thereby preventing a bureaucratic and economic nightmare. At the end of June, the Court struck down the tailoring rule, in part, but upheld the agency's authority to regulate carbon in other ways.

But how? Carbon dioxide is a different beast than the pollutants the act was originally designed to control. Most pollutants are troublesome in fairly small amounts; power plants that release 100 tons per year of sulfur dioxide and all other regulated pollutants need EPA permits. But many power plants emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. If the 100-ton-per-year threshold were applied to carbon, small polluters like farms and schools would be subject to regulation – some 6 million facilities in all.

For sulfur dioxide, there has long been a straightforward technological way to cut emissions: burn low-sulfur coal, and "scrub" out the rest with an alkaline slurry, such as lime or ammonium sulfate. But no such fix exists for carbon. The only potential solution, to capture carbon and sequester it underground, remains technically difficult and cost-prohibitive.

So it's no small feat that states, citizens and electric utilities finally have a well-designed, achievable carbon-reduction plan to consider for power plants. The Clean Power Plan puts no direct cap on plants' carbon pollution. Rather, it sets custom targets, requiring each state to reduce the carbon intensity of its power supply by cutting the "emissions rate" – the emissions from that state's entire fleet of plants divided by the electricity they collectively generate.

States have a lot of flexibility to reach their targets. They can cut coal-fired power and increase the amount they get from natural gas and renewables. They can increase efficiency at power plants and among consumers by providing incentives for people to insulate homes and businesses, or setting new building efficiency codes. They can join regional carbon markets, like California's.

So can the Clean Air Act do for climate change what it did for acid rain? Not with the Clean Power Plan alone. The proposed cuts are fairly moderate; the decline of coal – fueled by the natural gas boom as well as state energy policies – has pushed carbon emissions down about 15 percent since 2005. In other words, we're already almost halfway to our 2030 goal.

But even if the Clean Power Plan won't end the climate crisis, it's a lot better than what existing federal policy requires, which is nothing at all. In a political atmosphere where the reality of climate change still remains mysteriously open to debate, official acknowledgement that something needs to be done may be the first step in turning things around.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...