12/06/2018 - CleanLaw Podcast - Opinion

What Environmental Protection Owes George H.W. Bush

by Joe Goffman

In late August, 1988 presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, promised that as president he would introduce legislation that would cut millions of tons of the pollutants known to create acid rain. Throughout the 1980’s scientists had built a strong case that pollution from coal-fired power plants mixed in the national atmosphere, traveled long distances and returned to earth in the form of acidic rain that devastated forests and marine life in streams. They, along with environmentalists, states, and members of Congress strove futilely to persuade the Reagan administration to require reductions in those pollutants.

Read more below, and hear our interview with Joe on his insider’s view of the development of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. 

Candidate Bush had served for two terms as President Reagan’s Vice-President. His promise was, by design, a major break from his own administration. Bush’s promise succeeded in winning over swing voters who were in search of a sign that a President Bush would set a tone that contrasted with that of President Reagan, who had had a polarizing effect on a large portion of the electorate. It also bound him to spend his first two years in the White House leading a fierce battle with his bipartisan allies in Congress to enact the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Bush’s presidential leadership proved to be the decisive ingredient needed to bring victory to the decade-long struggle to cut acid rain. As a Republican President, his partnership with Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine transformed the effort into a bi-partisan one for the first time. Until that point, Democrats like Mitchell and Congressman Henry Waxman of California were the highest profile congressional advocates for acid rain legislation. The opposition of congressional Republicans, following Reagan’s lead, had stymied their efforts. President Bush needed to spend down substantial political capital in keeping Minority Leader Robert Dole and congressional Republicans “on side” and committed to months of arduous, sometimes round-the-clock, legislative negotiations. In the end, he and his allies prevailed.

The sweeping legislation, which covered both acid rain and a host or air pollution issues, strengthened the Clean Air Act to the point of making it arguably the most significant piece of environmental and public health legislation ever enacted. In February of this year a draft report issued by the Trump Office of Management and Budget found that 1) the benefits of federal regulation far outweigh the costs, 2) a significant majority of those benefits are created by Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and 3) of those a significant majority flow from implementation of the Clean Air Act.

The success of the 1990 Amendments reflects more than just President Bush’s legislative prowess. The law has delivered also substantial ongoing air quality and public health benefits thanks to innovative policies that the legislation pioneered.

To deal with acid rain, The Bush administration offered Congress a new idea that gave legislators a chance to cut through the acid rain impasse. For years, almost all the acid rain bills introduced in Congress would have required every coal-fired power plant to meet pollution limits based on a uniform set of clean-up technologies. The price tag projected for these bills was high and the acid rain pollution cuts proposed were modest. Part of the problem was that even plants facing higher than average compliance costs still had to meet the standards.

Then President Bush proposed what came to be known as “cap and trade”. His bill set an overall acid rain pollution “budget” for the entire power sector and permitted plants to buy and sell pollution permits. Low-cost reducers would make the most cuts, free up pollution permits and sell them to high-cost reducers. Although reluctantly at first, Congress adopted this controversial idea, persuaded by President Bush that his approach would allow for both deeper pollution cuts and lower overall costs. In practice, the idea worked even better than advertised. The acid rain program achieved more reductions than required and did so at lower costs than projected.

Having succeeded in tackling acid rain, the Bush cap-and-trade approach was embraced by the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations in turn to confront a wide variety of air pollution issues. In 2011, for example, the Obama EPA promulgated and implemented the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to reduce the power plant pollutants that create dangerous levels of soot and smog. Using cap and trade, the EPA projected that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule would serious prevent air quality-related illnesses hospital visits avoided numbering in the tens of thousands, producing $120-240 billion in benefits at a $2.4 billion cost. California and the Northeast states currently rely on cap-and-trade as the core of their respective climate change programs and a near consensus of environmentalists and utilities urged the Obama EPA to permit states to use cap and trade in the Clean Power Plan. Without George H.W. Bush it is unlikely that any of these cap and trade policies would have emerged.

Acid rain was not the only serious air pollution problem the 1990 Amendments solved and cap and trade not the only policy idea used. For years, EPA had been struggling to apply a previous version of the Clean Air Act to reduce scores of toxic air pollutants like mercury, heavy metals, benzene and acid gases. The struggle yielded pollution control requirement for only a tiny handful of the toxic air pollutants covered as EPA was compelled to make complex risk-based determinations for each of nearly 200 air toxics before even beginning to set pollution control standards. The 1990 Amendments used a new approach: directing the EPA to identify the technologies it knew could reduce toxic air pollutants and set pollution standards based on those technologies. As a result, EPA has set pollution control standards for a wide range of toxic air pollutants from an equally wide range of sources and sectors, such as cement kilns, pulp and paper mills and industrial boilers, improving air quality in communities across the country.

The ultimate success came in 2012 when the EPA applied the 1990 Amendments’ technology-based approach to air toxics emitted by power plants. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were projected to cost a little under $10 billion annually, and the value of the air quality improvements for human health alone was projected to be $37 billion to $90 billion each year. By the spring of 2015, the majority of coal- and oil-fired power plants had met their MATS obligations and the rest followed by the spring of 2016.

Without President Bush’s commitment to legislating and innovating it is, again, unlikely that these results would have been achieved.

One more measure of President Bush’s environmental legacy: at a time when the Trump administration is running away from the realities of climate change, the National Climate Assessment, brought to life by legislation he signed in 1990, produced, in a late November, a new comprehensive report on those same realities.

Decades on, the Bush environmental legacy persists.