EPA Should Use Business, Not Sanctions, to Clean Air

Northeastern economy can't absorb government arm-twisting

TWELVE states from Virginia to Maine, including Washington, are struggling to develop a road map for cleaner air in the Northeast. However, while the goal of clean air is clear, there exists no consensus among the states and the Environmental Protection Agency - to whom the states must submit plans by November - on how to get there.

The hour is late and the stakes are high. If states fail to submit approvable plans for air-quality improvement, the EPA must impose stiff sanctions: cut highway construction funds and require aggressive clean air ``offsets'' damaging to economic development projects.

Failure to submit an approved plan could also lead to the imposition of ``Federal Implementation Plans'' - like those that cost southern California jobs, industry, and transportation options. Such sanctions could make it uneconomic to construct new plants or make expansions to existing facilities in this region.

Unless the stalemate between the EPA and the states is resolved by November, the region will be faced with massive job losses.

To her credit, EPA Assistant Administrator Mary Nichols recently initiated a public hearing process to develop a solution for this difficult and costly problem.

At a recent hearing in Hartford, Conn., Texaco Inc. joined with Public Service Electric and Gas Company, and Merck to offer a comprehensive plan to clean the air faster in the Northeast and avoid debilitating EPA sanctions in 1996.

Concern over achieving air-quality standards at reasonable cost and avoiding sanctions prompted the companies to offer a constructive ``accelerated progress'' plan. Under this plan, the region could reduce air pollution on a cost-effective basis at a rate that is five to six times faster than required under the Clean Air Act, thereby permitting EPA to approve the state plans and avoid sanctions.

The key to this proposal is region-wide control of nitrogen oxides (NOx).

In 1991, the National Academy of Sciences recommended this as the most effective approach in lowering ozone levels. NOx pollution comes primarily from two sources: motor vehicles and large steam-electric power plants. While the EPA has imposed strict emission standards on motor vehicles, most steam-electric power plants in the region are operated without any NOx controls.

Because air pollution from one part of the region moves to other areas downwind, air pollution in Washington and Baltimore contributes to problems in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, which in turn affects New England's air quality. Some 60 percent of NOx emissions from large steam-electric power plants are located upwind to the west and southwest of population centers, and 70 percent of mobile source emissions are from within urban areas.

Further NOx reductions for vehicles and power plants are more effective and less expensive than alternative strategies, such as mandated car-pooling, which would constrain many high-employment industries from operating in the region.

The ``accelerated progress'' plan calls for early introduction of cleaner region-wide standards for steam-electric power plants that will achieve substantial NOx reductions beyond the minimum required by federal law.

This proposal also calls for the adoption of a low-emission vehicles program. It includes a market-based emission credit trading system that builds on the successful acid rain-allowance trading system. Allowing companies to trade NOx emissions credits will help the region hold compliance costs to lowest possible levels.

Once Northeastern communities accelerate progress toward cleaner air during 1995-99, there will be time to undertake a state-of-the-art field study to establish a current emission baseline and improve the modeling used to confirm the region's Clean Air Act attainment status. Better data and sound science are needed to ensure that air-quality measures are as focused as possible.

The Northeast states and Washington - government, business leaders, and citizens - should press the parties participating in EPA proceedings to develop a timely consensus for a plan that will clean the air faster, use cost-effective measures, build on the success of the acid rain-allowance trading program, and avoid EPA sanctions.

The Northeast needs a viable road map to get to ``destination: clean air.'' This cost-effective ``accelerated progress'' strategy provides just a such a map.

The region's economy is too fragile to absorb the shock of mandatory sanctions for noncompliance. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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