Monday, November 25, 2002
If you listened to Krugman...: you'd believe that the state of the environment in the United States is continually getting worse.
While that's not factually the case, in his Tuesday column, Krugman argues just that.
[L]ast week the Bush administration announced new rules that would effectively scrap "new source review," a crucial component of our current system of air pollution control. This action, which not incidentally will be worth billions to some major campaign contributors, comes as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to which way the wind is blowing (from west to east, mainly ? that is, states that vote Democratic are conveniently downwind).
But this isn't just a policy change, it's an omen. I hope I'm wrong, but it's likely that last week's announcement marks the beginning of a new era of environmental degradation.
Not only is Bush plotting to make air practically unbreatheable -- he's going to smoke out all of those misguided blue states first. That'll teach 'em!
Of course, Krugman conveniently ignores Bush's environmental record up to this point. As I mentioned back in April, the Brookings Institution's Gregg Easterbrook published a piece on the real record. [Requires Adobe Acrobat]
Some background: The origin of new source review lies in a big policy mistake 30 years ago. The original Clean Air Act imposed strict rules on new sources of pollution, but it grandfathered existing power plants, refineries and so on. The idea was that over time, as old facilities closed down, strict rules would become the norm.
What happened instead was predictable: In order to keep their exemptions, polluting industries poured money into existing facilities rather than build new ones. In an attempt to close this loophole, the Environmental Protection Agency began requiring companies that invested in existing facilities to demonstrate that they were merely doing maintenance, rather than creating new capacity that was supposed to face stricter regulation.
Krugman fails to answer the real reason why industries held on to their exemptions so tightly -- the permitting, regulation, siting and other bureaucratic red tape made it, in too many circumstances, so that building a new facility was unfeasible.
So, what happens? They make changes to existing facilities to increase production, etc. The problem with new source review was the fact that any minor change was supposed to put the entire facility under the newer, tougher regulations. Instead of merely checking to see if the change would improve production and reduce emissions, if you made what would be considered an even minor change -- the entire facility had to meet the same emission standards it would have to if the facility was entirely new.
Back in the early '90s I owned a 1971 MGB Roadster that had been restored by my grandfather. One of the things we wanted to do to it was to put on a new carburetor. It would improve performance, reduce emissions and generally make the thing run better (well, as good as a British car can). Unfortunately, we couldn't do it because of California's emissions laws -- even though a new carb would have been better for the environment. The new source review was a similar impediment.
(When it comes to polluting the environment -- why doesn't Krugman mention our own Gov. Gray Davis, Tosco and Dioxin? Oops! My mistake -- Davis is a Democrat, he couldn't be doing anything wrong.)
Last week's announcement is, I believe, a signal that even Clear Skies isn't going to happen.
Aside from cynicism (which has been an almost infallible guide to administration environmental policy so far), how do I reach that conclusion?
Ooooh! Ooooh! I know! Can I answer this? Because you're a partisan hack?
Administration officials still insist, of course, that they plan to proceed with clean air measures. And it's possible that they will eventually do the right thing. But don't hold your breath waiting. In fact, it might be a good idea to breathe deeply now, while you still can.
Next on the Bush administration's plans -- drowning puppies. Remember when Krugman writes a column about it -- you heard it here first.