The acid rain summit

ON the occasion of his Washington summit with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, President Reagan has taken one step forward on acid rain, and one step sideways. The forward step is his endorsement of a joint US-Canadian study of acid rain, prepared by two high-level special envoys and released in January. The study identified industrial air pollution, notably from coal-burning power plants in the US Midwest, as a major cause of acid rain. The report has been widely hailed as finally getting the US past the ``agnostic'' phase on acid rain. And now by endorsing the study, the President implicitly backs off from his earlier position that acid rain might stem largely from natural causes such as trees and volcanoes.

The sideways step is the presidential endorsement of the $5 billion, five-year program the special envoys recommended for commercialization of new clean-coal technologies. It has taken Mr. Reagan a long time to take the acid-rain issue seriously -- in the sixth year of his presidency. And so it is hardly to be expected for him to be out in front of the two special envoys and recommend a more radical program than theirs. But the clean-coal program is not expected to cut emissions of pollutants enough to alleviate the problem much. As environmentalists have pointed out, this is more of a ``coal'' program than a ``clean'' program, a gesture more in the direction of powerful US coal interests than of environmental protection -- or of US-Canadian relations, in which acid rain has proven a singularly corrosive element. But technologies that could cut emissions substantially, and for a relatively small extra charge on US customers' utility bills, are commercially available.

Its explicit recommendation of the coal program notwithstanding, the implicit message of the special envoys' report is that emissions of pollutants must be reduced, and now, not after five years.

With this goal in mind, Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont has just introduced a major bill requiring cuts in both motor-vehicle and industrial emissions. He has criticized the clean-coal program as ``way too small'' -- but has also observed that the President's overdue admission that acid rain is a problem will help get emission controls passed.

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