Across the United States, power lines are fast becoming battle lines between business and industry on one side and the environmental and health communities on the other.
On one front, the Clinton administration recently proposed regulations to improve air quality by reducing federally accepted levels of smog and soot.
On the other front, legislators at both the state and federal level have proposed, debated, and, in some states, begun to implement partial deregulation or restructuring of the electric utility industry - moving it toward more free and open competition between electricity providers.
These two skirmishes will soon merge, because the key to resolving the war over dirty air - clean, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and vehicles with zero emissions - could be a casualty of the electricity restructuring skirmish.
Hearings on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed air standards are under way. The Senate Energy Committee soon begins hearings on utility restructuring. State legislatures in Massachusetts and elsewhere seek to meet increasing citizen demand to raise consumer and environmental concerns.
The administration proposed the new air quality regulations because scientists have found that smog and soot are hazardous, especially for children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems. In large part, these pollutants are in our air because of the ways we use fuel and energy in generating electricity, manufacturing, and driving. Electric utilities and motor vehicles that run on fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal together contribute more than half of the nation's ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution.
In addition, conventional power plants and gas-fueled automobiles are responsible for two-thirds of United States sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, and two-thirds of US carbon dioxide emissions, the most significant heat-trapping gas contributing to global warming. Heavy economic and political tolls are imposed because most of the oil is imported from the Middle East.
But there is hope. We can clean the air and free the US from the heavy health, environmental, economic, and security burdens of fossil-fuel addiction by promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, and zero-emitting vehicles.
Renewables such as wind and solar can give us the heat and electricity we need without emissions that cause soot and smog. Energy-efficiency measures like building insulation, better motors, and smarter controls, would allow us to do more with less. Electric vehicles offer huge opportunities for reducing smog and soot today, and when we power them with zero-emitting renewable electricity we will have true zero-emission transportation.
By shifting to these cleaner and more efficient sources of energy and transportation, cities and states can reduce medical bills for emissions-related health problems and reduce Clean Air Act compliance costs, as well as help mitigate the potentially harmful and costly impacts of global warming.
The ongoing struggle at the state and federal levels to reorganize the electric utility industry presents a unique opportunity to integrate these clean air strategies into a competitive electricity market. If handled properly, this new free-for-all among electricity producers could be a win-win situation for consumers and the environment. But they could become casualties of the transition if legislators focus on the short-term lower prices of oil, gas, and coal and ignore the real long-term economic advantages of clean energy solutions.
By deliberately nurturing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and zero-emission vehicles through the skirmish for a more competitive electricity landscape, we can ensure that these essential technologies continue to develop. One way is to create a "clean power portfolio" that requires all electricity suppliers to provide a small percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Such a clean power portfolio would have low costs and would create the manufacturing economies of scale that would enable renewable technologies to compete successfully for a large share of an open competitive market. This concept is in two separate bills introduced this year by Rep. Dan Schaefer (R) of Colorado and Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, and is being considered by state legislatures in Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, Vermont, and Massachusetts, among others.
If we act now, the battle grounds will become proving grounds - proving clean air and adequate resources can coexist today and give us secure futures.
* Michelle Robinson is policy coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.