WHEN President Reagan endorsed the joint US-Canadian study of the acid-rain issue in March, environmentalists were somewhat heartened to hear him acknowledge at last that this is a serious issue. They were disheartened, though, that he didn't call for controls for emissions of pollutants; instead, the administration endorsed a $5 billion program to commercialize new clean-coal technologies.
Now, lacking more active leadership from the White House, 150 members of the House have signed on as sponsors of a bill to cut emissions substantially. This is the legislative breakthrough environmentalists have been waiting for -- and it is to be welcomed.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, proposes less stringent emissions cuts than a similar bill introduced recently by Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont. But the House bill has attracted a notably broad-based and bipartisan support group -- ranging from Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, plus a good number of others in between.
This support reflects a growing awareness that acid rain is not a concern just of crusty New Englanders and the alfalfa-sprouts crowd, but of people across the nation. There have been reports of forest damage in the Southeast, acidic fog in Los Angeles, and acidic lakes in the Rockies.
The broad House support also reflects efforts at consensus-building, notably by moderate Republicans of the so-called Group of 92, such as Rep. Tom Tauke of Iowa. This group, deriving its name not from the number of its members but from its aspirations to become the majority party in the House by 1992, has been made uneasy by the Reagan environmental record, and it wants to galvanize what is really quite broad-based public support for meaningful environmental controls.
The House bill also has in its favor the flexibility it offers states in reaching the emission-controls goals it sets. There is also a provision for a limited subsidy for those (mainly Midwesterners) whose utility bills would be forced up more than 10 percent by the strict new controls. The average utility bill, though, would rise only 2 or 3 percent.