Debunking Clean Air Scare Tactics: Part One, Acid Rain

There they go again. Economic meltdown. Higher consumer costs. Massive job losses. These are among the predictions of doom surrounding EPA’s current and forthcoming round of clean air protections. If they sound familiar, they should. Time and again, from the enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 to today, prophets of doom have predicted that disastrous consequences would flow from cleaning the air we all breathe. And time and again, those dire predictions have been wrong. The Clean Air Act has protected American health and our environment for decades while our economy has grown. It is a legislative success story that continues today.

This series will examine what the naysayers have said about Clean Air Act protections and how those wild predictions compare to the statute’s actual record of protecting Americans from toxic air pollution and its devastating effects on human health and the environment. We start with the acid rain program in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Part One: The Acid Rain Program

These maps compare annual wet sulfate deposition at the time of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and today's deposition levels, depicting the extraordinary progress that has been made. Source: NADP data.

Predictions of Doom

Twenty years ago, and twenty years after enacting the modern Clean Air Act, Congress took up the matter of acid rain, which was devastating ecosystems across the East and Northeast. Acid rain is caused by air pollution including sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. For the first time ever, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 used the groundbreaking tool of a market-based cap and trade system to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

Industry fought the acid rain program with scare tactics throughout the legislative debate, warning that it would wreak havoc on the economy:

  • The Edison Electric Institute predicted the Clean Air Act Amendments would cost the electric utility industry up to $4.5 billion a year.
  • The Business Roundtable projected the total economic cost would be $104 billion a year.
  • American Electric Power Company warned of “the potential destruction of the Midwest economy.”
  • In an editorial that dismissed the scientific case for reducing acid rain, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution warned that “Americans can expect their power bills to skyrocket for nothing.”

Protecting our Health and Environment

Twenty years later, peer-reviewed EPA studies required by the Clean Air Act show that sweeping public health benefits have resulted from the reductions in air pollution achieved under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. While the legislative debate about acid rain focused on environmental harm, public health reaped great benefits because sulfur dioxide pollution from power plants forms not only acid rain, but also particulate pollution that is particularly dangerous to breathe.

EPA estimates that the pollution reductions achieved under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments will in this year alone:

  • Save 160,000 lives,
  • Avoid 130,000 cases of acute bronchitis and 130,000 heart attacks,
  • Prevent 86,000 emergency room visits,
  • Keep children in school and prevent 3,200,000 lost school days and
  • Keep workers on the job and prevent 13,000,000 lost work days.

These profound public health benefits are paired with dramatic reductions in sulfate deposition, and damaged environments have begun to recover from the ill effects of decades of acid rain.

Costs and Benefits

Not surprisingly, the cost of achieving the tremendous public health and environmental benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 were a fraction of industry forecasts, and significantly below EPA’s own projections. In 1990, power companies predicted that reducing sulfur dioxide pollution would cost $1000-$1500 per ton and electricity prices would increase up to 10% in many states (Factsheet, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Industry Claims About the Costs of the Clean Air Act [PDF], June 16, 2009). In fact, the actual pollution reduction cost has been between $100 and $200 per ton for most of the program, and electricity prices fell in most states. Acid rain has been dramatically reduced and the limits on sulfur dioxide pollution were met faster and at a strikingly lower price than anyone expected in 1990.

The benefits to public health and the environment outweigh these costs many times over. EPA’s analysis of the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act projects that in 2020 the benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments will exceed the costs of compliance by a factor of 30 to 1. Studies by the Office of Management and Budget and private researchers support these conclusions as well.

The predictions of doom in 1990 overlooked the power of American innovation unleashed by the goals of the Clean Air Act Amendments and the market-based system Congress established to achieve them. Unlike previous programs that specified what pollution controls must be used, the acid rain program set enforceable and descending limits on total pollution, but let industry experiment, innovate and find the most cost-effective means to lower pollution. These results are a striking rebuke to the critics who said it could not be done.

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  1. Mike Johnson
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    There YOU go again, spreading the fear of death, destruction and the end of the world due to global warming. So it’s okay for you to use “predictions of doom” from your global warming theories, but it’s not okay for others to share the results of economic studies of a carbon tax?

    So why did you people stop calling it global warming and try to re-brand it as climate change?

  2. quentinp
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Well – because we understand the climate, but we don’t understand economics. SO when scientists say what is happening in the climate, and why, and what this will mean – they actually have data and know what they’re talking about.

    The denialists rebranded global warming it to make it sound less threatening. Yet it is more accurate – climate change isn’t making every part of the globe uniformly warmer. Someplaces temperature is the biggest deal (arctic – Sarah Palin has about 1/2 the ice-road drivable days that she had 50 years ago), sometimes it’s rainfall (like where all our corn comes from in the Midwest where drought will cost us a fortune and many many jobs), sometimes it’s sea level (Bangladesh will be sending 100million refugees into their neighboring countries and starting a terrorism wave like the world has never seen if they suddenly can’t feed themselves).

    We know all this. What we also know is that the “costs” have been pulled out of an economic model that has NEVER EVER worked (or an economist’s butt – same difference), we know that the costs will be 1/10th of what the economists say – and will actually be benefits for many. Especially the countries that move into green energy and sustainability first. Just like America isn’t.

  3. Mike Johnson
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    It’s common in debates that whenever someone is losing an argument they have to resort to personal attacks (ie, what does Sarah Palin have to do with this; saying “the denialists” rebranded global warming; …an economist’s butt).

    So what caused warming and cooling periods in the past?

    Your comparison of sulfur dioxide cap and trade to carbon cap and trade is misleading. The SO2 plan worked okay because (1) we could switch to low sulfur coal, and (2) SO2 scrubbers were a proven technology.

    The technology does not exist to reduce or capture CO2. So the “cap” will not reduce emissions but simply raise the price of emissions. Therefore, no measureable environmental impact.

    And some of these other wonderful countries that have ventured further into “green” energy have discovered that (1) it severely damages their economy by shifting economic resources to un-economic industries (ie, Spain and wind power); and (2) it actually raises carbon emissions due to the fact that renewables are woefully unreliable and therefore utilities have to build additional fossil fuel generating capacity to back-up the renewables and keep that back-up running so it’s available on a moment’s notice (ie, Germany has seen emissions increase).

  4. Posted December 7, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I just watched this wonderful film on the disappearance of the honeybees and wanted to share it: Bee the Change!

  5. Different View
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Environmentalists did NOT rebrand Climate Change from Global Warming, actually industry and the media branded Climate Change into Global Warming from the beginning and environmentalists finally re-claimed the accurate terminology. Check IPCC reports and any peer-reviewed scientific journal from the late eighties and early 90’s.