Monday, October 8, 2007

The Pollution Policy Song: Same Tune, Second Verse

In the Star-Telegram, James D. Marston, the director of the climate program in the Texas office of Environment Defense in Austin, writes:

First, the good news: President Bush acknowledged to the world Sept. 28 that global warming is real and that human activity is contributing to it.

And the president told international representatives at a U.S.-hosted climate meeting that he wants nations to set an "aspirational long-term goal" for reducing global warming pollution and to start a fund to help poorer countries pay for new emissions-cutting technologies.

The bad news is that the president again rejected mandatory cuts in global warming pollution. He instead urged voluntary measures to deal with the problem.

To Texans, Bush's newly restated commitment to voluntarism evoked Yogi Berra's famous line "It's déjà vu all over again."

Been there. Done that. Didn't work.

In a sacred Texas anecdote, a besieged Col. William Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and asked that volunteers willing to defend the Alamo step across it. Nearly all did.

The late-1990s response to Gov. George W. Bush's call for volunteers was less inspiring.

The story starts back in 1971, when the Texas Legislature passed a Clean Air Act but, for political reasons, grandfathered polluting facilities already in operation. The thinking was that power plants, refineries and other factories that were subsequently upgraded would be subject to the new, tighter restrictions; other aging plants would simply be retired.

It didn't work out that way. A quarter-century later, 828 grandfathered plants were still going strong -- and still spewing pollution into the air. Tired of breathing air that you could literally taste, Texans began demanding that the Legislature either clean up the old plants or shut them down.

In late 1997, when Bush was governor of Texas, he headed off a tough, mandatory cleanup requirement by proposing an alternative: a voluntary emission-reduction program.

In return for making voluntary reductions, Bush proposed a weaker standard based upon decades-old technology. What he tried was a voluntary approach dangling a carrot: If you do a little, we won't make you do a lot.

A year and a half after Bush announced his voluntary plan, the Legislature enacted it. (Electric utilities had to clean up their plants, but lawmakers passed a separate, voluntary plan for chemical plants, refineries and other plants.)

So what happened? Very little.

In 2000, Bush's people claimed that the voluntary program had produced 124 permits for cleanup measures. But an analysis at the time by the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense showed that 31 of those were applied for before the governor announced the plan. And 104 of them were applied for before the program was enacted into law.

Of the 124 permits issued that were claimed to have been voluntary, 99 of them were for facilities that had emissions so low that the state environmental agency didn't require them to report their emissions as part of the 1997 Emissions Inventory.

Only seven of the permits actually represented voluntary action not mandated by the federal Clean Air Act or other legal mandates, and only one plant in the entire state could be fairly said to have responded to Bush's 1997 voluntary initiative.

Legislators knew that the voluntary approach wasn't working, and when Bush left to go to Washington, they replaced the voluntary plan with mandates.

Six years later, the president, still defiantly opposed to mandatory measures, is once again pitching his voluntary approach.

His voluntary plan didn't work in Texas. A voluntary emission reduction plan has never worked anywhere. And just as the Texas Legislature rode to the rescue in 2001 to cap pollution from the grandfathered polluting facilities, it's time for Congress to take the reins.

Texans know that global warming is already happening. We don't have time to wait out another failure. America needs to lead the way. It's time for Congress to cap the pollution that causes global warming, and to do it now.