Posted on March 2, 2010
Though it hasn't received as much attention as health-care reform in the past six months, Washington is almost as bitterly divided over efforts to curb greenhouse gases.
Deniers of climate change and other environmental problems such as Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., fight cap-and-trade proposals on the one hand while business groups keep the Environmental Protection Agency tied up in court challenges on the other. Meanwhile, the cost in public health just gets higher.
That's why it's heartening to see that there is bipartisanship on one aspect of the problem: smog.
Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced legislation last month to amend the Clean Air Act to reduce three types of pollutants, typically produced by coal-burning plants.
The bill followed by a couple of weeks a proposal for stricter smog limits by the Obama administration, which said that a study had shown that standards set during the Bush administration were inadequate.
These measures are arriving none too soon — study after study has shown the rising health risks for Americans from inhaling air laden with toxic substances. Groups including the American Lung Association and Clean Air Watch still are dissatisfied, saying the EPA proposal doesn't go far enough to protect health.
The Senate bill carries greater weight in its ability to head off court challenges; plus, it is co-sponsored by five Democrats, four Republicans and independent Joe Lieberman, who are united by concern over not only public health but over economic issues created by unfettered air pollution.
Sen. Alexander is aware of the preponderance of coal-burning in Tennessee as a source of the region's cheap electricity and has noted that neighboring states emit dirty air, too. This points to a key insight overlooked in U.S. environmental policy for the past 10 years: Leaving environmental regulation to state and local officials — not to mention the polluting businesses themselves — is never sufficient, because air does not stop circulating and water does not stop flowing at the state or county line. Pollution is a nationwide and, indeed, a worldwide concern. And it is intertwined with the contentious issue of health care, in that the more pervasive the illnesses caused by bad air, the higher costs will rise — about $2 trillion between now and 2025, according to EPA estimates.
Still, do not expect that those that care more about their relentless pursuit of profit than about the public good will give up the battle. Sens. Inhofe and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, claim that there are "significant problems" with the Alexander-Carper bill and that "much work is needed to reach common ground." Inhofe's and Voinovich's top campaign contributors are mostly energy companies. Those companies clearly feel the amount they pay to influence lawmakers is a fraction of what they would spend to follow the rules.
But there are plenty of responsible companies in this country that already understand that obstructing tougher air-quality standards will bring the greatest profit to them in the long run: a healthy, plentiful consumer population that thrives on the jobs that are created by a society that offers a good quality of life. Without clean air, that quality of life will not exist for long.
New legislation is meant to reduce three types of pollutants typically produced by coal-burning plants. (FILE / ASSOCIATED PRESS)