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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pollution Porkbellies

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Janet Reynolds examines the pitfalls of buying and selling pollution rights.


CURWOOD: If the government can use the market to stimulate the production of goods that help protect the environment, then it should also be able to use the market to stimulate protective behavior as well. That's the argument of those who support the trading of pollution credits. But commentator Janet Reynolds takes a different view.

REYNOLDS: Pork bellies, move over - soybeans, watch out. There's another hotter commodity to trade these days - pollution rights. Yep, instead of cleaning up their own polluting plants, utility companies can buy the right to pollute from other companies whose emissions are lower than the standards set by the Clean Air Act of 1990. Apparently, the idea is to make low emissions an economic asset and then let the industries themselves pick the cheapest way to meet Clean Air Act standards. The EPA, meanwhile, can stop trying to chase down every single stinking smokestack. At least, that's the theory. There are, however, just a few disturbing loopholes. Like the fact that this trading is completely unregulated. That means a Long Island electric company that has lowered its emissions in New York State can sell its excess pollution rights to an Ohio company whose polluting emissions typically drift to the Adirondacks. And that means Adirondack lakes and ponds, a quarter of which are already highly acidic thanks to Midwestern utility plants, end up with more pollution. Not that people will be able to predict with any accuracy where any company's pollution will actually end up. Why? Because companies aren't required to provide any public information about the sales until at least 1995. For their part, EPA officials downplay concerns about pollution rights trading. The entire nation must cut its output of sulphur dioxide in half by 2010. Since the Midwest accounts for almost half of the sulphur dioxide produced in the country, the EPA reasons that that part of the country will also have to make the most cuts. At the same time, EPA officials figure Midwestern utilities will probably opt for cleanup over trading because it gives them the most bang for their buck. Sheer economics, the agency is betting, will dictate cuts over credits. We'll see. Not that I'm suggesting selling pollution rights is completely short-sighted. God knows, the catch-them-and-then-fine-them procedures of the past obviously haven't worked. It would be crazy then not to try something else. But as a resident of the Northeast, an area which already gets more than its fair share of pollution from the Midwest, I've got a problem with a system in which the free market rather than rational environmental mandates determines where our so-called allowable pollution is going to go.

CURWOOD: Janet Reynolds is a commentator for Living on Earth and Connecticut Public Radio.



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