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Downwind States

Change to the Clean Air Act Is Built Into New Energy Bill

... Under the new provision, the "downwind" states would not be required to meet clean air standards until the "upwind" states that were contributing to the problem had done so. Currently, states can get more time but only if they agree to added cleanup measures.

Proponents of the measure in Congress, as well as a spectrum of industry groups, say that the change would give state and local governments the flexibility and discretion they urgently need to deal with air pollution from distant sources. Otherwise, they would have to impose much stricter limits on pollution from local sources, including power plants, factories and automobiles.

But House members who fought against the measure, and other opponents, say flexibility and discretion are just other words for delay, saving money for industry and posing risks for millions of people living where the air does not meet health-based standards.

-- via The Hamster

I'm actually somewhat ambivalent about this provision. The trust-based reaction -- if industry groups support it, it's probably bad for the environment -- biases me against it. And it does seem to overreach. But there's something to the idea that the law should cut downwind states a break.

I can understand opponents' view that pollution is pollution, and you're just as dead if you get cancer from the factory next door or a power plant three states over. Everyone in the country should get the same minimum standard of protection from pollution. Yet there's still a serious question about the distribution of the burden for meeting that standard. It seems unfair that an eastern state should have to shoulder the costs of compensating for pollution that they didn't create. Yet the proposal seems to also let them off the hook for the costs of pollution they did create, so long as another state is contributing to their pollution.

What would make more sense is an allowance for downwind states to adjust their targets. So if the standard is 5 ppm of chemical X, and the air in Pennsyltucky currently contains 7 ppm of domestic X and 3 ppm of X from Xohd, Pennsyltucky would be expected to meet an 8 ppm standard (i.e., meet the basic standard on domestic emissions). They would then be able to sue Xohd to force it to reduce emissions that cross state lines (or negotiate an efficient combination of reductions in the two states in order to meet the 5 ppm standard in Pennsyltucky). We might also have a higher "urgent" standard, a level at which health threats are so severe that each state has to immediately make enough domestic reductions to meet it, regardless of where the pollution comes from. So if in the example of X the urgent standard was 12 ppm and Xohd produced 8 ppm that drifted into Pennsyltucky, Pennsyltucky would have to immediately reduce its domestic emissions to 4 ppm in order to get under that standard, despite the fact that most of the pollution comes from Xohd (though they could later allow domestic emissions to increase once Xohd got its act together).

The geography of this rule is interesting too. Many environmental issues, such as the Healthy Forests Initiative, can be explained by reference to supporters' and opponents' home districts. The typical framing is that rural, federal-land-heavy districts have one vision of how to manage their land, while those from urban eastern districts want to impose rules on them for the (supposed) common good. It's unclear exactly where the supporters and opponents of this air pollution measure are from, but the article quotes a Texan and a Mainer, respectively, so it's quite likely that there's the same rough geographical breakdown. Yet in this case it's the eastern states that would benefit from the change. Or rather, it's eastern industry that benefits, by being relieved of the burden of emissions reductions. Similarly, it's rural industry that's one of the primary beneficiaries of Healthy Forests.

If these debates were primarily an issue of scale -- local people versus those claiming to act in the national interest -- the support/opposition positions ought to be reversed. An alternative framing -- representatives of industry versus representatives of citizens -- does a better job in bringing the various environmental debates under a single rubric.


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