Friday, November 16, 2007

Was the acid rain cleanup program really a success?

AIR POLLUTION: Acid rain program hits low-emission milestone -- EPA

Katherine Boyle, E&ENews PM reporter

A U.S. EPA program aimed at reducing power plant emissions of acid rain-forming air pollutants had its most successful year ever in 2006, the agency said in a report released today.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from electric power generators dipped below 10 million tons for the first time ever, the report says, attributing the drop to early compliance with the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), high fuel prices, and federal and state actions.

Meanwhile, nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions have fallen more than 3 million tons since 1990, the report says.

Electric power generation accounts for about 70 percent of nationwide SO2 emissions and more than 20 percent of NOx emissions. Both pollutants help the formation of fine particles that negatively affect human health and build up regional haze. NOx also joins other compounds to form ground-level ozone. Both contribute to the acidification of lakes and streams.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, lauded the power sector's progress but said more needs to be done. "The one actual most significant thing they never mention is that we didn't solve the acid rain problem," he said. "Literally, we're making progress, emissions are less and the cost is less than anyone thought [it would be], but they didn't solve the problem."

The Acid Rain Program was established through the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and uses a market-based, cap-and-trade system to reduce SO2 emissions. The Clean Air Act assigns companies an SO2 emissions allowance based on their historical fuel consumption and emissions prior to the start of the program. Businesses that use less than their allotment are allowed to bank unused credits for another year. NOx is regulated through rate-based limits.

EPA allocated more than 9.5 million SO2 allowances during 2006, along with more than 6.1 million banked allowances. Although companies could legally emit 15.7 million tons of SO2, they emitted 9.4 million tons, a 40 percent drop from 1990 levels.

The power sector reduced its SO2 emissions by 830,000 tons compared with 2005. It achieved many of those cuts by reducing heat input through fueling plants with natural gas instead of oil and installing scrubbers, the study says.

Ohio cut its emissions the most, slicing more than 123,000 tons from the state's 2005 levels, the report says. The study also notes the agency has had nearly 100 percent compliance from power plants.

'Cautionary tale'

Strict emission requirements under CAIR, which addresses transport of fine particles and ozone, will keep companies on track in terms of emission reductions despite their stockpiled allowances, O'Donnell said. "If the interstate rule is having an effect, logically you would see a further drop," he added.

In 2010, the number of allowances will be fixed at 8.95 million under Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments.

That number may need to fall even further, O'Donnell said. "I'd leave it up to scientists to tell us exactly, but clearly [we need] lower levels than were set in the 1990 acid rain program," he said.

"That was to a large extent a political compromise that ultimately didn't solve the acid rain problem."

While he acknowledged the success of the market system, O'Donnell described the acid rain program as a "cautionary tale to those in Congress who are debating global warming."

"If they compromise too much," he said, "it won't solve that problem either."

Although EPA's report hails the decreased acidification and improved water quality in U.S. lakes and streams, O'Donnell said sometimes regulators can get "balled up in talking about the wonders of the market."

You can't "forget the ultimate goal is to solve environmental problems," he said. "You can have the best market in the world and still have dead lakes. Does that mean it was successful? I'd say not quite."

China's Environmental Protection Administration also announced this week that the country reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 1.8 percent in the first three quarters of 2007 by installing pollution-cutting technology at its coal-fired power plants.

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