A can-do EPA has defied the skeptics on smog

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe staff
Copyright 1998 Boston Globe
September 29, 1998


To understand the latest political policy trend sweeping the industrial West, my favorite illustrative oversimplification of the moment is the boring figure of $ 1,500 per ton of nitrogen oxide, the chief ingredient of a threat to healthy lungs called smog.

And for this, a deep bow of respect is in order to Carol Browner, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency the right way in a new era when solving problems is more important than fighting ideological wars.

This being an instinctively, rabidly partisan town, the locals rebel loudly at the notion of synthesis, or third way, or vital center, or New Democrat. They can handle occasional compromises between the two parties, such as at budget time, but the notion of a third dimension is more than this place is equipped to handle.

But elsewhere it's the wave: in the states, where party label can't sum up the policies of the vast majority of governors, and in Europe, where third wave surfers now run Britain, Germany, and, technically, even France, where the actions of a nominally Socialist government belie its name.

Our friends on the left and the right remain in denial, attributing these successive successes to political merchandising rather than substance.

But an excellent retort is Browner's $ 1,500 per ton. This is the estimate the geniuses in her agency have for the cost of cutting the emissions that cause smog by more than one-fourth. This requires cleaning up the huge power plants concentrated in the Midwest that send poison mostly south and east across state lines.

By contrast, less targeted and more invasive regulatory methods could easily have doubled or even quadrupled the cost of complying with the Clean Air Act. What's more, the $ 1,500-per-ton cost for the smog-belching entities called power companies, which works out to roughly a buck a month on a typical electric bill, is almost certain never to be actually experienced by consumers because of yet another third wave trend gathering speed around the country - the deregulation of electricity rates and the resulting spur to competition.

Last week the EPA put out for comment its final plan to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 1.1 million tons a year, or 28 percent, in 22 Eastern states plus the District of Columbia. Some 138 million people live in the East, and about one-fourth of them over the next few years will be breathing air that for the first time meets the country's new, tougher standards on smog. This plan marks the first time the EPA has confronted the enormous public health challenge smog causes in states downwind from where it is produced.

Two years ago, as Browner began to push for new rules, the power industry and its allies in Congress, the smog-producing states, and more than a few senior officials in the Clinton administration said it couldn't be done, at least not at a reasonable cost.

As has been the case through more than a generation of environmental naysaying, they were wrong. Browner showed, moreover, that a way of proceeding could be found that involved the states as partners and that harnessed new technologies and emission-control methods like the trading of credits among entities that are below and above specific caps based on the new standards.

In addition to emphasizing market strategies, Browner's plan is also mandate-free for the governors, including those of the most impacted states (West Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois). The attractiveness of large power plants as a focal point is obvious but not required. However, assuming this is how states proceed, $ 1,500 per ton compares nicely with the $ 3,400 per ton a focus on automobiles would cost; it also would enable states to exempt nearly all emissions coming from smaller businesses.

Down the road the EPA still faces the need to help major cities like New York, Baltimore, and Boston meet the standards, but the experience to date is powerful evidence that an emphasis on flexibility and emerging technology can do the trick.

A year ago Browner was warned that she'd be regulating back yard barbecues and daily commuting patterns to meet these goals. Today, except for pro forma complaints from the power industry, the naysayers are quiet.

This is third wayism at its best. As Bill Clinton himself said in an early campaign speech back in 1991, it's neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative; it's both, it's neither, and it's different.

On a lot of issues, it's also smart, and it works.

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