Fighting acid rain; President Bush’s sweeping new proposals are a major assault on poisoned air

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FIGHTING ACID RAIN PRESIDENT BUSH’S SWEEPING NEW PROPOSALS ARE A MAJOR ASSAULT ON POISONED AIR

Brian Mulroney, adhering to an early-morning routine he rarely breaks, was pedalling his exercise bicycle at the rustic prime-ministerial retreat on the shores of Harrington Lake in the Gatineau Hills when the call came through shortly before 9 a.m. President George Bush was on the line. After they exchanged greetings, Bush told Mulroney that he was about to unveil a sweeping new program to clean up North America’s air, including a package of proposals designed to attack the one issue – acid rain – that has bedevilled Canada-U.S. relations for more than a decade. The President and the Prime Minister chatted about the proposals for 15 minutes. As the conversation drew to a close, Bush informed Mulroney that, once his program had cleared Congress, he intended to seal it with a bilateral acid rain accord with Canada. Bush’s promises did not surprise Mulroney, who had been expecting the call. And later that day, he declared: “The United States administration’s proposals are most welcome news. It is a sign of real commitment by the President of the United States on an issue of major concern to all Canadians.” With a nod at the time and effort Canadian officials had devoted over the past 11 years to resolving the problem, Mulroney added, “It is refreshing to know that hard work pays genuine dividends for the environment that is so vital to us all.”

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The Bush plan, launched at a White House ceremony moments after his talk with Mulroney, marks the first effort by a U.S. administration since 1977 to upgrade the largely moribund Clean Air Act of 1970. If implemented by Congress, amendments to the act will break the legislative logjam that blocked attempts to deal with the problem throughout the Ronald Reagan years. It will also dramatically accelerate the battle against the increasingly dirty air that residents on both sides of the border are forced to breathe.

Scourge: While Bush’s proposals are aimed at curbing a wide range of pollutants in three broad areas, it is the provisions concerning acid rain that will affect Canada most directly. By the end of the century, the program could cut by about half the 3.5 million tons of acid-rain-causing emissions that America propels annually into Canadian skies – in addition to the more than three million tons generated in Canada. The gases are a scourge that has helped to kill an estimated 14,000 Canadian lakes and inflict untold damage on Canada’s environment, not to mention the health of Canada’s citizens. As Minnesota Republican Senator Dave Durenberger remarked to an environmentalist conclave in Toronto at the same time as the President was presenting his program, “this day begins the end of the long invasion of air pollution from our industrial heartland that has despoiled your most precious natural resources.”

Loopholes: Not surprisingly, Bush’s initiative received praise from wide sectors of opinion in both Canada and the United States, particularly in the northeast, where acid rain is especially prevalent. Echoing the Prime Minister’s comments, Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard hailed the move as a “major breakthrough” in U.S. environmental policies and attitudes (page 46). Environment Canada’s director of acid rain policy, Alexander Manson, called it “basically good news.” Ontario Environment Minister James Bradley, although less effusive, said that he saw cause for optimism. Said Bradley: “I’m not yet ready to help the federal government pop the champagne corks but I think it is a step forward.” In a similar vein, the federal Liberal party’s environment critic, Sheila Copps, declared, “Obviously, we’re pleased there’s a legislative initiative, despite some of the loopholes.”

Even many normally outspoken environmentalists expressed cautions approval. Said Adele Hurley, co-chairman of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain: “It’s a fool’s paradise to think the acid rain problem is solved, but I’m happy because all the players are now at the table and things have finally started to turn around.” Brooks Yeager of the U.S. National Audubon Society advanced a similar opinion. “We may quarrel with some of the details,” he said, “but it’s still a major move in the right direction.” The only adverse reaction came from those who will be expected to bear the price – in both financial and human terms – of the program. The White House estimates that Bush’s plan will add between $16.8 billion and $21.5 billion a year to industry’s pollution-curbing bills. More important, there are livelihoods at stake in the two regions of the United States most directly affected – the coal-producing states of the east and the industrial valleys of the Midwest (page 42).

Landmark: Despite the costs, the program is the first real indication that Bush intends to honor his election campaign pledge to serve as the United States’ “environmentalist president.” The plan is the first major domestic legislative endeavor he has launched since taking office, which in itself is a measure of the new political potency of environmental issues – not only in the United States but in Canada as well (page 44). By most standards, Bush’s initiative is comprehensive. In comparison to the environmental record of his predecessor, it is an ambitious scheme indeed. “This is a remarkable bill – a landmark piece of legislation,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly, who played a key role in shaping the proposals. “If enacted, it will mark the beginning of a new era in environmental protection: the Clean Air Decade of the 1990s.”

Political back-patting aside, many of the experts do agree that the package unveiled in the White House has the potential to achieve most of the goals mentioned by Reilly. It is designed to curb three major threats to the environment – acid rain, urban smog and toxic air emissions, particularly from motor vehicles. The planned legislation will attack acid rain at its source – the sulphur dioxide ([SO.sub.2]) and nitrous oxide emissions that turn into sulphuric and nitric acid in the air before falling back to the earth in the form of poisonous rain, fog, snow and grit. The bulk of those so-called acid rain precursors spew into the atmosphere from the smokestacks of antiquated, coal-fired power plants, many of them located close to Canada’s borders in the Ohio Valley. The Bush plan would, in two stages, cut 10 million tons of [SO.sub.2] and two million tons of nitrous oxide emissions by the year 2000, which is almost half of the existing total. When combined with the continuing Canadian program to halve the output of ([SO.sub.2]) by 1994, there is a real prospect of reducing acid rain to what Bouchard termed “acceptable levels” by the end of the century. At the present time, Environment Canada defines acceptable levels as 18 lb. per acre per year.

Disquiet: The plan is notable as much for what it sets out to achieve as for the manner in which it hopes to reach the required goals. Although companies are free to decide how they plan to implement the proposed regulations, they have also been handed a novel market-oriented incentive in the form of effective permission to trade pollution rights. The notion is complicated but, basically, it means that if one company exceeds the required reductions, it may sell the rights to emit extra pollution to other companies or even transfer the same rights to other plants within the same company, as long as the overall target for the region in question is not affected. The concept has evoked some disquiet among Canadian critics. The Liberal party’s Copps, for one, voiced concern over “pollution being a commodity that can be bought and sold.” She asked what would happen “if a company close to the Canadian border decides they want to evade regulations by purchasing a permit to pollute.” The coalition’s Hurley expressed similar concern. Said Hurley: “Dirty states like Ohio and Indiana may have to buy credits from, say, Florida, and that would be of no help to us.”

But Canadian officials say that they are less worried. Bouchard told Maclean’s: “We think that the economics of it will play in our favor because most of the pollution crossing the border comes from plants that are the most outdated…so the area where a dollar will be most cost-efficient will be in those places.” In other words, antiquated facilities like those based in the Ohio Valley, where a small investment can make a big difference, may choose to cut back more quickly than required in order to market emission credits to cleaner plants in other locations.

Flow: But Canadian government spokesmen expressed some uncertainty about other areas of the acid rain package. Of primary concern is the lack of any cap on emissions after the year 2000. The absence of legislated limits could mean an increase in transboundary pollution after the end of the century as a result of the installation of new coal-burning plants south of the border. It is for that reason that Canada will continue to press for a bilateral accord to ensure that once the current 3.5-million-ton output is cut in half, it remains at that level or, preferably, lessens further. Said Environment Canada’s Manson: “We want an accord with them to make absolutely certain that transboundary flows do not exceed two million tonnes a year. That is what we absolutely need. It must come down to two million tonnes and stay there under any circumtances.”

There have also been expressions of concern in some circles about whether, in the end, a 50-per-cent cut is now enough, given the sad state of deterioration that has occurred in forests and lakes. New Democratic Party environment critic James Fulton, for one, suggested that there might be a need to rethink the assessment that 18 lb. per acre of acid precipitation could be handled by the more sensitive areas of Eastern Canada, especially those in Quebec. Fulton aide David Gerrick said that with many areas now being dosed with 36 lb. an acre, a 50-per-cent cut “will still leave those trees dying.” He added, “The long and the short of it is that this bill simply is not sufficient.”

Curb: Whatever the accuracy of that judgment, Bush’s proposals do appear to lag behind Canada’s effort to curb acid rain. According to Manson, 90 per cent of the actions required to achieve the targeted 2.5-million-ton reduction by 1994 are already identified, scheduled and under way. The major cutback is occurring at Inco’s giant nickel operation at Sudbury, Ont., the largest single source of acid rain emissions in North America. The company is in the midst of spending close to $500 million to slash the outflow of [SO.sub.2] by nearly 80 per cent. Unlike the U.S. plan, there is a cap on emissions in Canada, as well.

There are other elements in the program Bush launched, however, that highlight both how far behind Canada’s position is on non-acid-rain pollution issues, as well as offering some clues to where this country may well be heading, largely as a result of the intertwining of the automotive sector on both sides of the border. Said Copps: “Certainly some of the areas where the U.S. is exploring legislation are areas where we don’t have any at the moment. I think we could take a page from their book in developing a similar type of Clean Air Act.” The NDP’s Gerrick agreed. “The Americans are way ahead of us,” he said.

Smog: In one instance, Bush’s plan recommends legislative action to attack urban smog, largely composed of ground-level ozone and carbon monoxide, as well as such toxic air pollutants as benzene. The President says that he wants to see the use of more vehicles driven by alternative fuels, including methanol, ethanol and natural gas. He has also proposed increased use of oxygenated fuels, a lowering of national hydrocarbon emission standards, a tightening of gasoline volatility requirements and the use of gas-vapor recovery systems on the nozzles of service station pumps. If the proposals clear Congress, they are bound to directly affect Canada, but there has been relatively little government action here in any of those areas so far. And that is true despite the fact that, according to Environment Canada’s own figures, at least four Canadian cities – Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver – would not meet either existing U.S. or Canadian clean-air standards for carbon monoxide.

Stiffen: In terms of ozone pollution, the Bush program would not only stiffen volatility regulations but also require production of more than nine million alternatively fuelled vehicles over a 10-year period beginning in 1995. Despite an experimental program and some research work on methanol-powered buses, Canada has no plans of such a magnitude. That will certainly change if the American oil and automobile industries are compelled to manufacture nine million vehicles fuelled by something other than the gas that vehicles run on now.

It is all a far cry from the situation that existed just a few years ago, when an off-guard Ronald Reagan facetiously blamed pollution on ducks. For 11 years, Canadian officials and environmental lobbyists fought the kind of attitude exemplified by Reagan’s dismissive remark. In 1980, the United States and Canada signed a memorandum outlining the need for a treaty on the issue. But, once in office, Reagan shoved the problem into the background.

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Reagan’s stand got warm approval from members of a coalition of coal, utility and automotive interests who, fearing the cost of a cleanup, successfully lobbied against legislative action. The faction could call on the help of powerful allies in Congress – in particular, Senate majority leader Robert Byrd, whose West Virginia constituency is a major coal producer, and House energy and commerce committee chairman John Dingell, whose Detroit district is in the capital of the automobile industry. But Byrd has now departed, replaced by Maine Democratic Senator George Mitchell, a leading environmentalist. And Dingell has suddenly altered his position. After Bush unveiled his program, it was none other than the Detroit representative who offered to sponsor the President’s proposals in the House.

Clearly, things have changed. The environment has grown into a hot issue, one that politicians can no longer afford to ignore. A Gallup poll scheduled for release this week in Canada found that 97 per cent of the 1,029 respondents were aware of the dangers of pollution. What is more, Gallup discovered that almost 100 per cent of those polled said that they believe that environmental threats are serious. As the poll reported, “trend data on this question reveal that more Canadians today believe there is a serious pollution problem than at any time since Gallup began posing this question to the public almost two decades ago.”

Rising environmental concerns have even penetrated the boardrooms of Canada’s biggest corporations. Those concerns are reflected in the new high-profile line of “environmentally friendly” products that Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the owner of one of the country’s most profitable supermarket chains, launched last month. Marketing the products under the “Green” logo, Loblaw hopes to take advantage of consumers’ heightened awareness with such items as disposable diapers made without chlorine bleach, phosphate-free automatic dishwasher detergent and many others. Said Loblaw president Dave Nichol: “Some may accuse us of being environmental opportunists, but we see our role as providing products that people want.”

The causes underlying the new attitudes are clear enough. As Gallup reported in its analysis of the poll, “voices such as the 1987 World Commission on the Environment declared that corporate irresponsibility and government neglect throughout the 1970s and 1980s have served to produce a situation where today environmental problems are becoming commonplace and irreparable.” Gallup’s analysis added: “Scientists warn that permanent damage to the ozone layer, the ramifications of the `greenhouse effect,’ the onslaught of acid rain problems and other environmental difficulties will all be soon compounded if action is not taken. These factors have no doubt served to alarm Canadians.”

Target: Much the same can be said about Canada’s neighbors to the south. And that is one of the reasons why many observers say that Bush’s sweeping proposals to clean up that country’s air stand a good chance of being enacted into law by Congress. Few will deny that the opposition is formidable. But although Bush has asked Congress to pass amendments to the Clean Air Act, incorporating his program, no later than the end of this year, many congressmen say that his target is optimistic. And as the President declared when he unveiled his initiative shortly after talking to the Prime Minister, “every American expects and deserves to breathe clean air, and it is my mission to guarantee it for this generation and for the generations to come.” Canadians can only wish him well.

PHOTO : Acid-rain-damaged maple leaf (lower left); Idaho pollution: a bedevilling and divisive issue

PHOTO : Mulroney; Bush in ethanol-powered car: accelerating the battle against increasingly dirty air

PHOTO : Researcher washing coal: a comprehensive initiative

PHOTO : Dying sugar maple: poisonous rain, fog and snow

PHOTO : Copps: `We’re pleased’

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