Let's say, in a naive, Candyland sort of way that is apropos in the early days of a new year, that lawmakers who talk at the opening of a new Congress about working together in good faith actually mean what they say. What could they accomplish?
Here's an idea for them to ponder before they get back to the important business of putting partisan score-settling above the national good: A grand bargain on clean air.
The time is right. There are lot of proposed regulations and a flurry of regulatory deadlines coming down the pike aimed at cleaning up coal-fired power plants, especially the decades-old beaters that lack up-to-date pollution controls. First, there are SOX and NOx emissions caps (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which help form smog, ozone and acid rain, for those outside the Clean Air Act cognoscenti) in a smog-transport rule that will affect utilities in states east of the Rockies. EPA is reconsidering the ambient ozone standard. There's a proposed rule to limit power plant mercury emissions, another rule to tighten controls on power plant cooling water intakes, and still another on managing coal ash.
The transport and mercury proposals are responses to court rulings throwing out earlier transport and mercury rules that didn't cut the legal mustard.
Then, there's that matter of the greenhouse gas emissions permitting rules that took effect Jan. 2 and greenhouse gas performance standards that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose for coal and oil-fired power plants next summer.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty about what Congress will do especially with the crop of anti-government Tea Party freshmen tugging at John Boehner's sleeve who would just as soon abolish EPA, striking a blow for the freedom of smokestack owners to impose pollution on individuals without their consent.
Not all smokestack owners would care for that sort of anything-goes freedom. What they would rather have is clarity about clean air rules, so they can plan their capital investments without worrying about patchwork regs bubbling up from the states or worse nuisance litigation, a thrill ride on Class 6 courtroom rapids that utility execs would rather avoid.
This week, an unnamed industry source told the trade journal Inside EPA: "The way to actually help the economy move forward is to get some regulatory certainty on these issues, and I don't see how you get regulatory certainty unless there's a component of CO2 in there." The source went on to say: "My sense is that there's a lot of people in the business community where if it were something reasonable on CO2 and would really give them certainty going out, that they would take that."
Heavens to Murgatroyd, could that "something reasonable" be a carbon cap? Well, you can't call it that. Politically, it's impossible. Congressional Republicans succeeded in demonizing the term "cap" when they trashed their policy heritage of cap-and-trade by smearing it as "cap-and-tax." That means you can't call "something reasonable" a tax either.
As far as thoughtful utility bosses are concerned, congressmen can call carbon regulation whatever they want. They can call it a bologna sandwich. What's important to the utilities is that Congress mark out clear lines on a playing field that sets a reasonable, achievable pathway to reducing conventional air pollutants, air toxics like mercury, and carbon dioxide, so they can make rational decisions on retrofitting their old coal clunkers or replacing them with cleaner power plants running on low and zero-carbon energy sources.
EPA can't give them that because it is bound to enforce the Clean Air Act as it is written. Congress can by crafting simplifying legislation that sets workable standards and deadlines for reducing the electric power sector's pollution. There would be wins all around: Utilities would get certainty, citizens would get cleaner air, and the nation would get carbon reductions that the Obama administration's diplomats could wave in international climate policy forums.
The choice is up to Congress solve a problem or play politics with it. Two guesses which choice Congress will make.
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