Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander April 22, 2007

“Earth Day”

Posted on April 20, 2007

As we celebrate the 27th Earth Day, it is time to acknowledge that climate change is real, that human activity is a big part of the problem and that it is up to us to act. This week, I introduced legislation to reduce air pollution and the threat of global warming by enacting strict standards on the four major pollutants from powerplants. I am pleased that Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who chairs a key environmental subcommittee, will be the bill's lead cosponsor. The bill will establish an aggressive but practical and achievable set of limits on four key pollutants: sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and carbon emissions. Clean air and climate change is not a new concern. I can remember 40 years ago when I was working as a staff assistant for Howard Baker, and Senator Baker, a Republican, and Senator Muskie of Maine, a Democrat, worked together on the committee overseeing the environment on which I now serve. They passed the first Clean Water Act and the first Clean Air Act. Some people have said the Clean Water Act was the most important piece of urban renewal legislation ever enacted -- the rivers of America had gotten so dirty, nobody wanted to live on them -- and as soon as they were cleaned up people moved back to the cities on the rivers. That was 1970 and 1972. I’m glad there is renewed interest in protecting our planet and I think it is appropriate to think about this on Earth Day, which was started in 1970. During that time the environment, which had been an issue that was reserved for only a few people, became a national craze. Everybody was interested in the environment and recycling. Since then we’ve learned more about how damaging pollutants are to our health and to our economy. Knoxville, the biggest city near where I grew up near the Smoky Mountains, is the 14th most polluted city for ozone. Ozone irritates lung tissue and increases the swelling of lung tissue, increases the risk of dying prematurely. At risk in Knoxville County alone are 176,000 children, 112,000 seniors, 15,000 children with asthma, and 50,000 adults with asthma. Mercury pollution of rivers and streams contaminates the fish we eat and poses a serious threat to children and pregnant women. In Tennessee, the automotive industry needs to find safe ways of dealing with pollutants. Tourism is big business as well. Many people know about Yellowstone in the West, but the Great Smoky Mountains have three times as many visitors as any Western park, nearly 10 million visitors a year, and they come to see the Great Smokies, not to see smog, not to see soot. They want to enjoy the beauty of the parks. When the Cherokees named the Great Smoky Mountains they were not talking about smog and soot, but unfortunately today they probably would be. If we are concerned about protecting our health, protecting our jobs and protecting our planet, then power plants are a good place to start. It is time to finish the job of cleaning the air of too much sulfur, too much nitrogen and too much mercury. It is time to take the right first step with controlling carbon emissions. What we do in this bill is take the standards that EPA has created for nitrogen and sulfur and mercury put them into law and make them a little stricter. Then for the first time we put into law carbon caps on electric powerplants, which produce 40 percent of all the carbon produced in the United States and are the fastest growing sector producing carbon in America. These steps will help relieve some of the worst air-related environmental problems affecting health such as ozone, acid rain, mercury contamination and global warming. Of course, we will have to pay for cleaning the air and capping emissions; we want to preserve jobs while cleaning the air and preserving the planet. Offsets, where emitters can pay somebody else to reduce their output of carbon, are one way. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority might pay a Tennessee farmer to manage his livestock crop in a way as to not produce as much methane or it might pay a Tennessee farmer to plant a lot of trees. Both of those things would reduce greenhouse gases, and the farmer would have more money in his pocket. These offsets are ways we can all help preserve our planet, and that is a good idea. We have learned enough to know we need to finish the job of cleaning up the air, and we need to take the right first step to begin to control the emissions of carbon to deal with global warming. If we take the aggressive but practical cost-effective steps in this Clean Air/Climate Change Act, we will unleash the great entrepreneurial spirit of our country. We will be able to create an inexpensive way to deal with carbon on a sector-by-sector basis, deal with the other pollutants, the rest of the world will follow, and we will be better off. This is the kind of subject on which we should all be working together, and Earth Day is a good time to focus our energy and attentions on what we can do to keep the beauty of our planet. Whether it’s working on legislation in Washington -- or planting trees, carpooling, protecting our national parks and conserving energy in Tennessee -- there are many ways we can help.