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Steven Hayward- Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Dr. Steven Hayward is Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies for the Pacific Research Institute. He is also nationally recognized for his recently released book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980 (Prima Publishing, 2001), and Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity (Prima Publishing, 1997). [go to Hayward index]

Mercury Blues
Environmental policy - the Gipper's way...
[Steven Hayward] 12/11/03

In a surprise announcement last week, the Bush Administration unveiled a plan to implement a sweeping new air quality regime. It is aimed at reducing the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) through a system of tradeable emissions permits. Once fully implemented in 30 eastern states, the system will enable 90 percent of eastern regions currently out of compliance with the new ozone and particulate standards to reach compliance over the next decade. The measure will also reduce mercury emissions from power plants, and therein lies a tale.

Environmentalists reacted to this news with their usual vapors, which proves that the Bush administration has a sense of humor for its unhinged critics. In the strange argot of Washington, a reduction in the rate of federal spending is always called a "cut." Likewise, an emissions-reduction plan that doesn't match up with hypothetical reductions in the environmentalists' litigation-rich dream world becomes an increase in pollution. Like gangsters losing territory to a rival gang, what really bothers environmentalists is that Bush is threatening to cut them out of the action with a tradeable emissions mechanism that uses markets, instead of lawsuits and endless regulations, to achieve its goals.

This is all the more ironic when one keeps in mind that environmentalists favor tradeable emissions mechanisms for reducing carbon dioxide. So why not for other air pollutants? Some intrepid reporter should ask about this contradiction. But why let a sensible debate about policy get in the way of partisan polemics?

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote that "President Bush will go down in history as America's worst environmental president." This merely echoes a report from several environmental organizations that said, "The President . . . has broken faith with the American people on environmental protection." Oh, wait a minute: this quote was about President Reagan in 1982.

A check of EPA records shows that every category of air pollution fell during the Reagan Administration, even though environmentalists charged then, as they do now about Bush, that Reagan was "emasculating" the Clean Air Act. Apparently wolves are no longer an endangered species, given how often environmentalists are making wolf cries. Prediction: air pollution is going to continue falling under Bush; when the data come out in 2010, environmentalists will change the subject.

Environmentalists are especially upset that the Bush plan won't reduce mercury emissions as much as they would like. (Currently, mercury emissions are not regulated at all.) Mercury is a tiny byproduct of coal combustion. While SO2 emissions are about 10 million tons a year, total mercury emissions are no more than a few hundred tons a year. And coal fired power plants only account for about a third of the mercury that is present in the environment in the U.S. It is not clear that high levels of mercury in some local fish populations are caused by air pollution.

There is no evidence that anyone is experiencing mercury poisoning from air pollution. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control's most recent report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals states that no one has blood mercury levels that reach the EPA's threshold for adverse health effects. Chalk this one up as another ill-founded scare story.

copyright 2003 Pacific Research Institute




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