Savvy Sixth Graders: Young Citizens Purchase E.P.A. Pollution Credits
Air Date: Week of April 21, 1995
Through bake sales and band concerts, one sixth grade class in upstate New York recently raised $3,000. What did they do with the funds they raised? The class bought the rights to 21 tons of air polluting chemicals. Their purchase helps prevents the chemicals from being emitted by polluting industries. Robin Finesmith from Living on Earth's Midwest bureau at WCPN-FM in Cleveland has this report.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In today's program, we're going to learn how a 6th grade class in upstate New York is preventing pollution from acid rain. And if you're wondering how they're doing this, yes it is another one of those cases where it seems like the kids are ahead of the grownups. During the Bush Administration, the Clean Air Act was changed so that big power plants get a limited number of permits to emit sulfur dioxide, which can cause acid rain. If companies clean up their pollution faster than they have to and don't use all of their pollution allowances, they can save them up or even sell them on the open market to other polluting companies. But anybody, even 6th graders, can buy the permits and keep them out of the hands of polluters. From Living on Earth's bureau at WCPN in Cleveland, Robin Finesmith has our story.
(Stock exchange floor: a bell rings amidst frantic voices)
FINESMITH: At the Chicago Board of Trade, soybeans are selling at about $6 a bushel, and pork bellies around 40 cents a pound.
(Voices calling. A man speaks: "In spot auction, the highest bid price we received was $350; the lowest was $1. The average...")
FINESMITH: Meanwhile, in a board room 6 floors up, sulfur dioxide is running at about $130 a ton. Most of the bidders are large electric utilities who purchase the credits from the EPA as part of the Clean Air Act. But one investor is 12-year-old Breanna Cowen, who has traveled from Glens Falls, New York, to represent her 6th grade class.
COWEN: There is a picture of a really nice statue in an area and it, like, fell apart. It was demented looking. (Laughs.) It was pretty bad looking. I mean, if acid rain can do that to a statue, think of what it can do to, you know, something else.
FINESMITH: Cowen is describing the effects of acid rain, which has damaged dozens of lakes in New York's Adirondack Mountains where she lives. Her class got to see first-hand the effects of acid rain when they collected samples from their own back yards.
COWEN: Well, we got results like, um, 7.0 is neutral, which means it's perfectly fine water. We didn't get any, I don't think any of those. The lowest we got was 3.0, which is horribly acidic, and the most commonly ones were 4.5s, which isn't very good, either.
FINESMITH: Water that acidic can degrade forests and wildlife along with statues and gravestones. So, with tangible evidence of acid rain in hand, Breanna and her classmates looked for an equally tangible solution. Through bake sales and band concerts, the class raised over $3,000 to buy the rights to 21 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution, the source of acid rain. Cowen's bid for the allowances was placed by the National Healthy Air License Exchange, or INHALE, which will permanently retire the emission allowances so they can never be used. David Webster is the president and founder of INHALE. He says this is one of the most concrete ways of protecting the environment.
WEBSTER: If you have to go into a lobbying campaign or if you have to go into a litigation fight, the results are not guaranteed. When you buy one of these allowances, you know what's going to happen to it. It's a very direct, guaranteed way to have an impact on the environment.
FINESMITH: Utilities are issued a certain number of emissions credits each year, but they don't get enough to cover the total amount of sulfur dioxide they're permitted to release under the 1990 Clean Air Act. Companies can buy more credits, up to the legal limit. Or if it's cheaper, they can adopt new technology to reduce their emissions to begin with. As with other commodities, anyone can buy these allowances, and the EPA says it has no objections to INHALE taking credits off the market just to prevent them from being used. In fact, the Director of the EPA's Acid Rain Program, Brian McLean, gave Cowen's class a special plaque commending their purchase. Still, McLean says, so far INHALE's net effect on pollution is mostly symbolic.
McLEAN: They don't add up to a lot on a percentage basis. But if a lot of schools or a lot of groups decided to do this, it could have some effect on the total number that's available. So instead of a 50% reduction in emissions it might be a 51% reduction. I mean, it could have that kind of an impact.
FINESMITH: INHALE executive director Dan Jaffee says even that small of a reduction can have a large impact on the environment. He estimates that the $3,000 purchase by Glens Falls Middle School will save over $84,000 in environmental and health-related costs. But for Interior Energy of Cleveland, which was outbid by Cowen's middle school class, there are other costs to consider when allowances are taken off the market. Elizabeth Shaw is Interior's Environmental and Safety Director.
SHAW: If for whatever reason sufficient emission allowances were not available for us to continue to use our coal plants as they're currently configured, then we would have to invest in a more expensive technology such as a scrubber, or such as burning natural gas or something like that. And if the allowance market went away, that would merely drive up the price of what it will cost us to generate the energy for our customers. In the long run, the customers are the ones who pay.
FINESMITH: For that matter, some criticize any participation in the allowance market on the grounds that it's immoral to treat air pollution as a commodity to be bought and sold. INHALE replies that yes, in an ideal world the emissions market wouldn't be necessary, but as long as it does exist environmentalists might as well use it to their advantage. As for the ultimate effects of sulfur dioxide reductions brought about by the allowance market, INHALE founder Dave Webster says we should be able to literally see results by the year 2000.
WEBSTER: The EPA has said that at the end of the cleanup that's going to be mandated under this program, there are going to be 30% more stars. Sulfur dioxide blocks out the stars, and really is a big factor in decreasing visibility. Thirty percent more stars everywhere.
FINESMITH: Webster says every sulfur dioxide allowance that industry can't use will bring that goal a little closer, and he hopes INHALE can remove 10% of the pollution permits from the market over the next few years. As for the market itself, the United Nations is beginning to consider the creation of a global environmental commodities exchange modeled after the one currently in play on the Chicago Board of Trade. Meanwhile, the students of Glens Falls Middle School hope to double their purchase of sulfur dioxide allowances next year, and they'll have help from Breanna Cowen, too, even though she'll have moved on to the 7th grade. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.
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