Can acid rain sell the climate bill?

Acid rain is back in the political arena.

Nearly two decades ago, Congress adopted an acid-rain control program using a newfangled "cap and trade" system to rein in its cause, sulfur dioxide emissions.

It worked. The S02 output from coal-fired power plants fell faster and more cheaply than expected.

Now, politicians and advocates are on a frenzied tear, saying that what worked then can work again. The same emissions-trading mechanism, if used to reduce greenhouse gases, can save the planet from warming temperatures, Democratic leaders are arguing.

But it's becoming a tough sell to critics who think global warming is a much more complicated and expensive problem.


With cap-and-trade legislation headed for tough negotiations in the U.S. Senate after successful passage in the House, this debate is becoming louder.

"I think what we're going to see is that if we're able to get this in place, that it's going to be very similar to ... how we approached acid rain, where all the naysayers are proven wrong because American ingenuity and technology moves a lot faster when incentives are in place," President Obama said about climate legislation during a recent interview with reporters.

Opponents of the analogy claim that the technological challenges, political dynamics and business factors surrounding global warming represent a chasm of differences between the two programs.

Acid rain was a regional problem controlled largely with readily available scrubbers installed on a limited number of power plants and a switch to low-sulfur coals. In contrast, as yet, there are no commercially developed technologies to grab greenhouse gases from large industrial sources.

And there's no guarantee the program will even solve climate change without similar actions from other countries. Some lawmakers worry that U.S. manufacturers could move overseas, where they wouldn't have pay to reduce emissions.

Linkage called 'bait and switch'

In a recent newspaper editorial, former George H.W. Bush administration counsel C. Boyden Gray, who was integral in implementing acid rain controls, slammed the linkage between the 1990 program and the House climate bill, which was put forward by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

"This is a clear bait-and-switch," Gray wrote. "The acid rain success and other successes based on it did not utilize the impossibly complicated $1 trillion auction/tax/allowance reallocation scheme that resulted from the political logrolling behind the close 219-212 House vote."

Conservative lawmakers like James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a climate skeptic and the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also blasted the analogy recently as a "myth."

The truth about the comparison may lie somewhere in between.

Acid rain surged to the forefront in the 1970s and 1980s amid press reports about caustic raindrops damaging buildings, forests and waterways in North America.

In 1990, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, Congress passed a new concept for pollution control that established a cap on total sulfur dioxide coming from smokestacks. It allowed businesses to trade credits granting them the right to pollute with the gas. If they emitted more than their allotted cap, they had to buy more credits. If they released less, they could sell their credits on the marketplace and help finance their new controls.

After a rocky start, with utilities hesitant to cast the first trade, the successful program became a public-relations victory for the federal government.

The birth of cap and trade in the United States resulted in SO2 levels in the atmosphere falling 40 percent in some regions.

Not harder, 'just bigger,' NRDC claims

U.S. EPA estimates that the yearly cost of the program will be $1 billion to $2 billion in 2010, when the permanent cap takes effect. That's about a quarter of its original projections. And on the free market, pollution permits have stayed cheaper than predicted.

The tool for both environmental problems rests on the same principle: Let industry figure out the best way to meet an overall cap on emissions, said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.

"Many people say that carbon cap and trade is so much harder. I don't think it's harder; it's just bigger," added Doniger.

That global warming is such a far-reaching problem actually gives it an advantage, in his view, because it allows a wider swath of sectors to find the lowest-cost carbon savings.

Doniger noted that many of the same trade associations that sounded false alarms over acid rain legislation now stand against a climate bill. Just as with acid rain, it has taken about a decade to go from the first incarnations of climate legislation to the now realistic prospect for passing a bill through Congress, he said.

"There are a lot of members of Congress who weren't around then and didn't hear [the industry protests]," Doniger said. "They need to be reminded that we've all heard this before."

Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the designers of the original emissions trading system always envisioned it as a good way to eventually deal with climate change. The fund helped build the acid rain program two decades ago.

Yet there are obvious differences between the two environmental problems. Acid rain involved two pollutants in a limited geographic area.

Climate change, on the other hand, involves six greenhouse gases that can mix with the atmosphere and move across the world. That adds an international element to the situation. For that reason, some lawmakers are reluctant to get behind the House legislation until large emitters like China and India agree to enact parallel controls.

The global warming challenge also goes far beyond the electricity sector.

There are no CO2 'scrubbers'

Fossil fuels burned in motor vehicles and airplanes produce about a quarter of heat-trapping gases. Energy-intensive industrial sectors like iron and steel will be involved. And the destruction of tropical forests alone could account for 20 percent of carbon output in the years ahead.

Because of the issue's complexity, a cap-and-trade program for climate change would incorporate multiple government agencies, ranging from the Treasury Department to the Department of Agriculture.

Then there are the politics. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments passed the House 401-25 and the Senate 89-10. The climate bill, however, squeaked through the House in June with a 219-212 vote. A Senate draft of the global warming legislation will not be released until September, but it is uncertain whether lawmakers can get 60 votes to block a filibuster, much less 89.

Yet many analysts argue that the biggest distinction is that there is no climate equivalent to the scrubbers that proved so successful in getting rid of sulfur dioxide.

With coal-fired power plants accounting for about a third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, many think there is no way to stop global warming without the development of a C02 capture and sequestration (CCS) system for power plants.

"You really have to remember that we essentially began in the mid 1970s to look at technology around scrubbers and nitrogen oxide controls," said Chris Hobson, a senior vice president at the utility Southern Co., at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill. "If there's a contrast between where we were in 1990 and where we are today, it is that the technology was much farther along then."

A full-scale demonstration of CCS does not yet exist. Scientists are in the early stages of testing, and some predict that commercialization is at least a decade away.

The pipeline labyrinth necessary to ferry trapped C02 from power plants to final resting spots could require tens of thousands of miles of construction. Acid rain did not require that kind of new infrastructure.

But polls indicate the linkage works

Hobson added that the electrical utility industry was much simpler in the 1990s, making the acid rain program easy to run. Today, a larger portion of the sector is deregulated, making it more difficult to assess how cap and trade will affect electricity prices.

Yet supporters of the House climate legislation, like Kreindler, argue that the cap-and-trade system proposed for global warming has cost controls that are akin to the acid rain scrubbers. Those controls include incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Unlike the acid rain program, the Waxman-Markey plan also carves out a huge role for offsets, which allow businesses to meet their carbon caps more cheaply by investing in things like mass tree plantings overseas.

Older power plants, for example, could at first avoid installing their own pollution controls and instead buy offsets or purchase less expensive permits on the carbon market.

Most importantly, when you put a system in place that gives people a profit motive to reduce emissions, "they'll find a way to do it," EDF's Kreindler said.

Regardless of whether the analogy is an appropriate one, it still may be the best tool in Obama's marketing arsenal. According to many polls, climate change ranks low in the minds of voters when compared to other issues.

One way to change that, according to Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick, is to discuss what happened two decades ago. He has researched extensively how Americans perceive global warming.

"We have found that when we tell Americans how much a cap-and-trade policy will cost them in extra energy costs, most people are opposed to it unless we tell them that cap and trade worked effectively in reducing acid rain," Krosnick said. "Once people learn that cap and trade is not an experimental idea but rather is an idea that has been tested and worked, they are more positive toward it."

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