Breathing easier: Who pays?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 29, 1998

Every time the Environmental Protection Agency comes out with tougher regulations to clean up the air we breathe, industry cries foul. This time it's the electric utilities - AmerenUE, AmerenCIPS and Illinois Power Co. - that are making a stink.

Last week, the EPA announced new rules to cut down on smog-producing chemicals (chiefly nitrogen oxide) in 22 states from Missouri to Maine. Missouri must cut its nitrogen oxide emissions 35 percent by 2003; Illinois must reduce its nitrogen oxide emissions by 32 percent by 2003.

According to the EPA, pollutants drift from Missouri to make the air dirtier in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. How the states manage to cut down pollution is up to them. But the EPA says the most cost-effective way is to clamp down on the largest sources: coal-fired power plants.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest and least-regulated sources of nitrogen oxide, the EPA says. The cost of cutting nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants - $ 1,500 a ton - is only a fraction of what it would cost to get a comparable reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and trucks, the EPA says. Cars and trucks, collectively, are the second largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, but are already heavily regulated.

The utilities complain that they'll have to spend millions - on top of millions they've already spent since 1990 to halve nitrogen oxide emissions from their coal-fired power plants. They say it makes no sense to penalize power plants in St. Louis to make Chicago's dirty air incrementally cleaner.

One way or another, the utilities say, the cost of controlling pollution will come out of rate payers' and/or shareholders' pockets. What's more, the utilities warn, the faster-than-hoped-for timetable for meeting federal standards could cause power shortages or brownouts while the utilities scamper to install pollution controls.

It's true that cleaning up our air will cost utilities more money. And it's probably true that if it doesn't come out of shareholders' wallets it will come out of yours and mine. (The EPA estimates the new regulations will add less than $ 1 a month to the average customer's bill.)

But until we develop cleaner technology - or learn to live less energy-dependent lives - it's the price we must pay for cleaner air and healthier lungs.
Solar power, anyone?

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