Victims and Perpetrators
Just the facts, ma’am: Illinois and acid rain
December 3, 1987
A good explainer about a once-crucial public issue—acid rain from Illinois coal-fired power plants. In the thirty-some years since the piece was written, acid rain has disappeared from the headlines if not the skies, thanks to flue gas scrubbers and the phasing out of service of the dirtiest power plants or their conversion to cleaner-burning coal from western states.
A reminder that Illinois policy-makers, for the most craven political reasons, had for decades been willing to sacrifice Illinois land, the nation’s air, and the public health to protect the jobs of a few coal miners in a few counties in the state.
"Considering what we know and don't know about the science of acid rain, it seems prudent to incorporate a measure of patience in our policy," reads a just-published acid rain study from the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. "The State is concerned that mandatory sulfur dioxide reductions will result in economic impacts that are disproportionate with our contribution to the environmental problem."
Usually when an Illinois executive agency speaks on the topic of energy and the environment, you can see the lips of the big coal and utility lobbies moving. "Patience" in their lexicon translates into plain English as "delay," and "prudent" in this context means "profitable." As even viewers of TV news know by now, a tough national program to control the sources of acid rain means either punishing electric rate increases for some companies (to pay for scrubbers) or aggravated unemployment in Illinois coal towns (the result of utilities switching to low-sulfur coal from Western states).
DENR's study, however, speaks with a voice of its own in making a series of important points about this issue, even if the words end up sounding familiar. For example, the science of the long-range transport and chemical transformation in the atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (the major acid rain precursor hereabouts) remains a shaky basis for any program (except, perhaps, the further study of long-range transport). What is known includes: l) what goes up must come down; 2) roughly two-thirds of what goes up comes down no farther away than 600 miles; 3) reducing what goes up reduces what comes down, but only partly. What is not known, and may not ever be known, is how to trace emissions from Power Plant A in Illinois to Lake B in upstate New York.
Trying to track the fate of emissions from, say, Commonwealth Edison's Kincaid plant near Pawnee—a plant whose annual sulfur dioxide output of 174,000 tons has earned it a place among the nation's "filthy fifty" emitters—is like trying to link the cough of a particular party-goer to a particular cigarette in a smoke-filled room. Atmospheric processes fall into that class of natural phenomena which are sometimes described as not only more complicated than we know but more complicated than we can know. Because of this, Ned Helm of the sort-of-pro-controls Acid Rain Coalition explained from Washington the other day, "The argument has shifted away from identifying which sources can be associated with damage to which lakes." One should note that the argument has shifted toward controlling sulfur dioxide as part of a more generalized air pollution problem which includes nitrous oxides, ozone, and particulates. The issue is no longer whether Illinois will have to take part in a national acid rain control program, but on which terms.
The economic stakes are significant, if not as disastrous as the coal and power industry has tried to suggest. (As is true of many old married couples, it's hard not to refer to them as a single conjoined entity.) Predictions of a few years ago that electric rates would double for some customers have given way to DENR’s calmer estimate that rates under one of the more popular control proposals would have to rise maybe 8 percent overall, with even the most affected companies needing at worst a 25 percent rise. Job impacts, while significant, would be local. Under DENR's worst-case scenario, mining jobs would shrink by 6,500. In a state in which even former governors have a hard time making honest livings, such losses should not be sneered at. But protecting jobs at any cost is folly; ask British Steel.
Allocating the blame for acid rain is a necessary political preliminary to allocating the costs of stopping it. Some of the first control plans offered in Congress proceeded from the apparently simple principle, "the polluter pays." Reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions were mandated whose achievement would cost hundreds of millions to Midwest utilities burning high-sulfur coal, who were offered neither construction subsidies or rate relief to soothe those hurts.
Such proposals expressed the morality of acid rain as it was then understood. But who exactly is the polluter in such cases? Is it the utility company who profits from the sale of dirty electricity? Or is it the customer who enjoys its use? Utility regulation makes the point philosophically moot, since each company's cleanup costs presumably would be passed on to its customers in rate hikes. Politically, however, the point remains crucial.
Sulfates, you see, are not the only thing which moves across state lines. Electricity does too. A recent report from the environmental think tank, INFORM, argues that the familiar scenario in which acid rain policy is acted out by "victim" states and "perpetrator" states and "bystander" states is flawed for that reason. The victimized Northeast for example is a major importer of electricity, some of which is produced by coal-burning Midwest power plants. The power customer in such cases becomes both victim and perpetrator, with the distant Midwest reduced to bystander.
INFORM argues for the allocation of cleanup costs according to who benefits from coal-generated power, not who generates it. Ashley Brown of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission in fact suggests that one way to curb acid rain is not just to build scrubbers but to build more transmission lines connecting the Midwest to the rest of the country. “By increasing the interstate commerce in electricity," Brown told me, "you can spread the cost of cleaning up coal emissions. Essentially, you nationalize cost-recovery."
Of course, what looks like a polluter to a philosopher often looks like something else to a regulator. Midwest power plants were made the target of most early control plans because they were seen to be contributing disproportionately to the problem. After all, most of the sulfur dioxide in U.S. skies (three-fifths or thereabouts) comes from this part of the country and most of that (nearly 77 percent in Illinois for example) came from power plants. But such plants are not the only sources of S02. Other plants, in the Midwest as elsewhere, may emit at a lower rate (usually measured in pounds of sulfur dioxide for every million Btus of heat produced) but they still emit sizable amounts of S02. Smaller boilers (including some used in industry) may have hideously high rates of emission but, because they are small, don't put out that much actual S02 compared to their bigger cousins.
What then constitutes "excess" emissions? Too high a rate? Too high a tonnage? Do you seek the largest emissions reductions per dollar spent, in effect making cost the criterion? Or do you insist that a given class of emitters meet a single standard for the rate of emissions? Or do you seek to reduce the actual tonnage of pollutants emitted, in proportion to an individual plant's, or class of plants', contribution to the total pollution load being borne by the atmosphere?
A cloud does not discriminate between a molecule of S02 according to whether it originated in a power plant or a factory boiler, in an efficient boiler or an inefficient one, whether it blows in from the West or the Midwest. DENR's bright boys and girls argue that since acid rain is a function of the total atmospheric loading of sulfur dioxide (with nitrous oxides) a control program which excludes certain types of boilers or uses emission rates rather than total emissions as a standard "may be expedient . . . but it is not equitable in its treatment of Midwestern states."
Indeed, "inequitable" is another way to spell "Waxman-Sikorski,” the congressmen-coauthors of the most-supported control bill in the 199th Congress. Under that plan, Texas would have had to make no reductions even though in 1980 its plants pumped nearly 1,300,000 tons of S02 into the air. Illinois, in contrast, had total emissions that year which were only marginally larger (1,500,000 tons) but it would have to reduce its total emissions by 709,()()0 tons, or 48 percent. Indeed, one can reduce total emissions nationwide by 10 million tons using different formulae which would require that anywhere from 753,000 to 555,000 tons of it come from Illinois.
Naturally, requiring already-efficient boilers to achieve further economies, or requiring small ones to achieve expensive ones, is itself inequitable. Cost-effectiveness, alas, has little to do with fairness, just as fairness has little to do with justice. Acid rain is that rare thing, a problem with too many solutions. DENR offers two new ones in its reports; Congress is working on several more. None is likely to be passed soon, and all will likely end up having to be much more complicated than anyone a few years ago would have thought. □