Climate 411

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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U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tries to Tap Dance Out of PR Disaster

Thomas Donahue, president and CEO of the Chamber, issued a statement today in response to heavy public criticism of the Chamber’s position on climate change.

His attempts to tap dance out of a public relations disaster, like the Chamber’s defense of the status quo, will do nothing to address the serious questions of American energy independence, climate change, and the development of a domestic clean energy industry.

Donahue says it is ‘dead wrong’ that the Chamber is opposed to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. But just a month ago, his senior vice president, William Kovacs, publicly demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency hold a hearing to put the ‘science of climate change on trial.’ Kovacs also told the media the hearing would be ‘the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century … It would be evolution versus creationism.’ There could not be a clearer repudiation of Donahue’s claims than that.

Donahue also blames environmentalists for his predicament when he says, ‘Some in the environmental movement claim that, because of our opposition to a specific bill or approach, we must be opposed to all efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, or that we deny the existence of any problem.’ But it’s not the environmental movement that’s opposing Donahue – it’s his own membership.

In the wake of Kovacs’ statement, the Chamber has lost three prominent members — Chicago-based Exelon, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM).  Johnson & Johnson and Nike have also publicly criticized the Chamber’s stance on climate change. These companies have made it clear that the Chamber is not representing their best interests when it opposes legislation that will create both jobs and profits in the lucrative new clean energy economic sector.

In a public letter to Donahue, PG&E chairman and CEO Peter Darbee wrote, ‘Extreme rhetoric and obstructionist tactics seem to increasingly mark the Chamber’s public stance on this issue … an intellectually honest argument over the best policy response to the challenges of climate change is one thing; disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality of these challenges are quite another. Unfortunately, it is difficult to read the Chamber’s latest maneuvers on this issue as anything but the latter … I fear it has forfeited an incredible chance to play a constructive leadership role on one of the most important issues our country may ever face.’

That should disprove Donahue’s statement that the Chamber’s views are shared by ‘the business community.’

Donahue also says the Chamber is leading the fight to clear the roadblocks that are delaying renewable energy development. But right now, the biggest roadblock to renewable energy development is the Chamber of Commerce itself, and its relentless attempts to undermine every good faith effort to create a new American energy policy.

If Donahue wants us to take his claims seriously, he should start by talking to his own membership about why so many businesses think a clean energy bill is a good idea. Then he needs to make sure the Chamber’s policies reflect the views of those businesses. Visionary American companies will undoubtedly be international leaders in the 21st century clean energy economy; the question is whether the Chamber will lead with them, or become a business relic like the phonograph or the pony express.

Steve Cochran is the director of EDF’s national climate campaign.

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What Change Looks Like

“The days of Washington dragging its heels are over”
– President Obama, Jan. 26, 2009

David Yarnold, EDF’s executive director, just sent this message out to our supporters, reflecting on President Obama’s actions this morning:

I just witnessed history in the making.

This morning, President Barack Obama signed two executive orders that could be remembered as the critical turning point toward achieving real energy independence and stopping global warming.

President Obama directed the EPA to review the Bush administration’s denial of a waiver request by California to cut global warming pollution from automobiles. The president also ordered the Transportation Department to enact short-term rules on how automakers can improve the fuel efficiency of their new models.

Politically, what President Obama said was at least as important as what he signed.

The President’s powerful statement affirming his commitment to moving aggressively to cut global warming emissions and unleash America’s clean energy future laid out clear goals for action in the coming weeks and months.

The President’s plan—including the next step of a cap on carbon pollution—means more new jobs, a rebirth for the American auto industry, and less global warming pollution.

If today’s announcement is the start of a comprehensive policy like that, I’d say that’s pretty darn good for the first week in office.

I was deeply honored to be among those who attended the White House ceremony and witness history in the making. And, I couldn’t help but think that this is what change looks like.

For more on today’s news, here’s a good article from the Washington Post.

We’ll keep you posted as we continue our efforts to support President Obama’s goal of capping and reducing America’s global warming pollution.

Steve Cochran is the director of Environmental Defense Fund’s national climate campaign.

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Voinovich Bill: Detailed Prescription for Doing Nothing

Steve CochranThis post is by Steve Cochran, director of the national climate campaign at Environmental Defense Fund.

Ohio Senator George Voinovich today proposed to address the rapidly escalating threat of climate change by delaying meaningful federal action to control greenhouse gas emissions, obstructing existing state programs, and allowing U.S. global warming pollution to increase for decades to come.

This proposal can be summed up in one word: bankrupt. It’s a detailed prescription for doing nothing. If you think climate change is a hoax, this is your bill.

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Why a Bill in 2008: Same Politics in 2009

Steve CochranThis post is by Steve Cochran, National Climate Campaign Director at Environmental Defense. It’s the first in a series on Why a Bill in 2008:


1. Same Politics in 2009
2. Good versus Perfect
3. The Price of Waiting
4. The World is Waiting
5. Best Answer to High Gas Prices

The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (CSA) is a solid bill, but it’s not perfect. And this is the last year of the Bush administration. The new administration, whatever the party, may be more supportive of action to halt climate change. So aren’t we likely to get a better bill through Congress if we wait for the next administration?

In a word, no. And moreover, we can’t afford to wait. Here’s why.

Read More »

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House Passes Energy Bill – Next Up: Climate

This post is by Steve Cochran, National Climate Campaign Director at Environmental Defense.

Yesterday, with the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House passed legislation that will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and promote energy efficiency. The bill is now in the Senate, where procedural votes are underway.

Speaker Pelosi has previously said that the energy bill passed yesterday by the House "will lay the groundwork for the Congress to move forward next year with comprehensive action to address climate change."

The Speaker is showing that she has the will – and the power – to produce real results in the House on issues important to the American people. We’re pleased that she has pledged to use that same focus to pass a comprehensive climate bill in 2008.

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