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Progress on air pollution: Is it cost-effective?

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In this year's biggest environmental battle -- renewal of the clean Air Act -- the major arguments will hinge not on hard-to-pronounce chemicals and microscopic specks of dirt, but on dollars and cents.

Industrialists contend that the landmark legislation and its controversial regulations harm the economy by wiping out jobs and boosting the cost of just about everything. Is it worth adding several hundred dollars to the price of a new car, they ask, to remove those last few bits of pollution from exhaust pipes?

Environmentalists contend, as they always have, that a price tag should not be put on the nation's health. At the same time, they have gathered figures showing that the Clean Air Act, in fact, has helped the economy. Thousands of new jobs have been created to produce pollution-control devices, and costly health problems have been alleviated in many areas.

The Reagan administration (at the least) wants to speed up the process of controlling air pollution, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Anne Gorsuch. Even though the Clean Air Act does not specifically provide for taking economic costs into account (a point that has been upheld in federal court cases), the administration says cost-benefit analysis should play a greater part in clean air decisions.

The Business Roundtable, a group of about 200 chief executives of major companies, this week added considerable weight to the Reagan side of the argument. In a report including 92 case studies, the group concluded that "Clean Air Act legislative and regulatory requirements have unnecessarily impeded enrgy development and industrial modernization and expansion, often without leading to improved air quality."

As an example, the group cites a Shell Oil Company sulfur recovery plant that will cost 20 percent more ($11 million) because of an EPA requirement that the last 2 to 3 percent of residual sulfur be removed from a tail gas stream. In another case, a family-owned iron foundry in the Midwest (even though it voluntarily added pollution- control equipment) was required to install additional controls that could total 2 to 3 times the cost of all its production equipment and raise energy prices by 143 percent.

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