Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Balancing Act

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Balancing Act

Article excerpt

Electric utilities are the largest source of pollutants in the United States today. Electric power plants produce roughly two-thirds of the nation's sulfur dioxide emissions, a third of its mercury emissions, a quarter of its nitrogen oxide emissions, and 40 percent of all industrial sources of carbon dioxide. Most of these pollutants come from coal-fired plants.

Larry Parker and John Blodgett, from the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, point out that while restructuring of the electric utility industry is supposed to lead to lower energy rates, it will likely lead instead to increased air emissions, at least in the short run, as electric utilities continue to operate their older, primarily coal-fired units rather than invest in new, less-polluting power plants.

Although sulfur dioxide emissions would not be affected, extending the life and capacity of coal-fired facilities will increase the emission of nitrogen oxides, mercury, and carbon dioxide. On the other hand, regulatory efforts to reduce the latter three emissions will raise the cost of operating coal-fired plants and will tend to make less-polluting natural-gas combined-cycle technology more competitive. Thus the impact of restructuring is unclear and may remain so for years to come.

For Conrad Schneider of the Clean Air Task Force, one thing is clear: coal-fired power plants are a major contributor to health problems and environmental disruption. Schneider says that the Clean Air Act is currently inadequate to protect either human health or the environment. At least a 75-percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions will be needed, for instance, to restore our lakes and streams from the acid rain damage of the past 50 years. Such a reduction will also avoid 18,000 premature deaths each year.

Sulfur dioxide emissions are only one of the culprits contributing to air quality problems, Schneider says. Soybean crop losses from ozone, in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, for example, are in the neighborhood of a quarter to a third of a billion dollars each year. …

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