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19.4.11 1423
The 7 - Current Events & Politics - Air Still Getting Cleaner
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#1 Posted on 6.4.04 0645.23
Reposted on: 6.4.11 0647.03
...and for those of you that think that Bush is just spewing CO2 into the air, remember that this biased source is a Gregg Easterbrook blog entry. A slap at the NY Times to Boot.

Study: airmarkets/cmprpt/arp02/ 2002report.pdf

* * * * * * * * *

ANOTHER OVERSTATED NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE STORY: "Up in Smoke: The Bush Administration, the Big Power Companies and the Undoing of 30 Years of Clean Air Policy." So blares the cover of yesterday's New York Times Magazine. Author Bruce Barcott isn't responsible for the headline, but might not it have occurred to some editor somewhere at the Times Magazine that there is nothing in the 13-page article that supports a claim of "undoing" clean air policy? All pollution regulated by the Clean Air Act is declining, has been declining for years, and continues to decline under George W. Bush. That's not mentioned in the 13 pages, since it would more or less spoil the entire premise of the story and the dramatic cover. No factual statement in the Times Magazine piece appears wrong, but the article systematically ignores counter-arguments and counter-facts in order to create a picture that is, overall, inaccurate.

The Times Magazine piece is about Bush administration changes in the "new source review" regulation that mainly governs old, coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley, upwind of New York Times customers. The article begins by calling changes to the new-source rule "among the least noticed" of Bush regulatory actions, a puzzling claim since new-source review has repeatedly been on The New York Times' front page and editorial page in the last two years. Set that aside. The article goes on to describe how new-source review was created in 1977 to sometimes but not always require old power plants to install modern anti-pollution equipment; that the rule is complicated and hard for power companies to understand (the "sometimes but not always" part); that some utilities evaded or defied the rule; that late in the Clinton administration, EPA administrator Carol Browner decided to make the rule stricter; that the Bush White House relaxed Browner's stricter rule, returning new-source review standards to approximately what they had been before Clinton tightened them.

That much is well-detailed by Barcott's article. Where the distortion enters is in what's not said. First, the impression is given is that new-source review is the guts of the Clean Air Act, when in fact it's a secondary provision, governing only a small fraction of total air emission sources. Second and much more important, trends involving pollutants governed by the Clean Air Act are positive and have continued to be positive under George W. Bush. (Greenhouse gases, where trends are negative, are not governed by the Clean Air Act or by any law.) Aggregate air emissions, everything rolled into one, have declined 25 percent since 1970 (see figure 1 here), though the population has risen 39 percent in the same period. The Times Magazine cover and article give the impression that air pollution is getting worse when in fact it's in significant decline: about half as much, per capita, as in 1970.

More specifically, the Times Magazine article correctly notes that recent health studies have shown that "particulates" (fine industrial soot), acid rain, and nitrogen oxides, all forms of pollution emitted by the power plants impacted by the new-source rule, can damage health. But what the article doesn't add is that these forms of pollution, too, are in decline. Particulate emissions have declined 14 percent in the last decade--see page 11. Acid rain emissions from power plants have fallen 41 percent since 1980--see figure 1 of this report--and have fallen 9 percent since Bush's election. Nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants have declined 33 percent since 1990.

So The New York Times Magazine proclaims the "undoing" of clean air policy but skips over the complication that air pollution is declining, and, yes, declining under George W. Bush. This deceives the reader, creating a doomsday impression that makes for a good magazine cover and gives Barcott's article urgency, but does not hold up if you know what the article doesn't tell you. Barcott writes that he "conducted months of extensive interviews" on Bush clean-air policy. In those months did he never ask anyone, "Say, is air quality getting worse or better?" Maybe he did ask and kept the answer to himself, since the answer undercuts his story.

If the latter, the Times Magazine author is not alone, as for two years The New York Times' front page and editorial page both have featured articles expressing outrage about Bush changes in new-source review, yet rarely, if ever, mentioned that pollution is declining. Here, figures 11 through 22 graphically display trends in pollution blowing from the Ohio Valley to the Northeast in the last decade--a big decline in acid rain and a moderate decline in nitrogen oxides. Most of this decline came under the version of the new-source rule that Bush just put back into effect, since the tightened Clinton version only was around a couple of years. That is to say, Midwest power-plant pollution went down under the old regulation whose restoration by Bush is now depicted as a disaster.

Elliot Spitzer, Senator James Jeffords, and others who make extravagant claims about the Bush new-source rule change never mention the complication that actual trends in air pollution are so inconveniently positive. True, trends might be even more positive had the Clinton-written rule remained in effect. Clinton's version of the rule was a good job and could have been left to stand; Browner, a very level-headed and reasonable person, put an awful lot of work into her rule and wanted it to be fair to utilities. (Power companies exaggerate the costs of new-source compliance just as enviros exaggerate the degree of emissions.) But the worst-case scenario for Bush's rule is that it will slow the future rate of pollution decline--which hardly sounds like the undoing of 30 years of clean-air policy, does it?

Finally, the Times Magazine story ignores or buries the really inconvenient complication that the Bush White House has taken some steps to make air pollution regulation more strict. Bush has put into force three powerful new pollution-reduction rules, one written by Browner and the others composed under Bush. One new rule mandates that diesel engines of trucks and buses be much cleaner; a second new rule mandates that "off road" power plants such as outboard motors and construction-machine engines be much cleaner; a third requires refineries to reduce the inherent pollution content of diesel fuel, this last rule enacted over the howls of Bush's core constituency, the oil boys. Taken together, these three new rules are the most important anti-pollution initiative since the 1991 Clean Air Act amendments that cracked down on acid rain. And because studies show that diesel fumes are bad for public health, Bush's new rules should produce at least as much public-health gain as the strictest interpretation of the new-source standard. Yet not a word of this in the Times Magazine article, since mention would undercut the premise.

And in January the Bush EPA promulgated a new set of rules intended to force power plants to make another round of reductions in acid rain and nitrogen oxides. Grudgingly, on the last of its 13 pages, the Times Magazine article allows that Bush's January regulations might accomplish the goals of the Clinton new-source standard anyway, though doing so at lower cost. Poof! The entire story just disappeared. But how many people read all the way to the third-to-last paragraph, versus how many saw the doomsday cover?
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#2 Posted on 6.4.04 1543.38
Reposted on: 6.4.11 1546.30
Seen it last night... I've gotta say Easterbrook is at least fair about calling bullshit on both sides. Doesn't excuse most of Bush's environmental record, but he's innocent here.
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