In the 1960’s and 70’s, pollution was becoming more deadly. Smog, soot, noxious chemicals from industry all spewed into the air. The head of Ohio University’s Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment, Scott Miller, says the American public wanted it cleaned up.
“We had things like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland. We had lots of work going on to promote an environmental consciousness in the United States,” says Miller.
Soon, calls for environmental action reached the White House. President Richard Nixon presaged federal action in his 1970 State of the Union address.
“The great question of the 70's is, shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land, and our water...” said President Nixon.
Clean Air Act
Later that year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. For the first time the U.S. had national air and water quality standards. Miller says polluting industries were on notice.
“Industry definitely understood and knew what was going on at that time,” says Miller.
The new pollution standards caused controversy, and spawned industry changes. The petroleum industry developed unleaded gas. Cars and trucks were downsized.
In 1977, Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act and Miller says that led to new pollution control technology for factories and power generating plants.
“We started to see the phase in of scrubber technology and other control technology to capture some of those harmful pollutants at the source and try to control at the time right there so we were not releasing it directly into the air,” says Miller.
Past Emission Standards
As environmental science improved, researchers found more direct links between emissions and degradation of the environment. Acid rain in New England was connected to sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Ohio and other states.
In 1988, air pollution became an issue in the presidential campaign between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush.
By 1990, more restrictive amendments were added to the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions linked to Acid Rain. But there was a new wrinkle.
The feds turned to a market based system to encourage pollution control - the cap and trade system. Major polluters could buy and sell pollution credits on an exchange market similar to commodities like corn, sugar and cotton.
“That market based strategy was the basis for the cap and trade system for carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions that the Obama Administration proposed in 2008,” says Miller.
Future Emission Standards
Three years after being proposed by President Obama, the EPA finalized national standards for mercury, dioxin and acid gas emissions and turned its attention to greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide. The worry turned from acid rain to global warming.
This week’s proposal calls for 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide from power generating plants by the year 2030.
Miller predicts industry compliance will again be contentious. He says government and industry will be able to draw on a 40-year record of regulatory mandates and industry responses.
“You know there are plenty of really smart people that work for the utility industry. There are plenty of really smart people in academia teaming up and working together. You know I have no doubt that we’ll be able to tackle this problem,” says Miller.
The rule making process is a long one. The EPA will conduct public hearings before finalizing the standards next summer.