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Acid rain: diversion or action?

STUDY, more study, and further study, followed by research. This has been the Reagan administration's approach to the problem of acid rain.

Now ``The Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain,'' by former US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and former Ontario Premier William Davis, is being hailed in some quarters as breaking new ground, as finally getting the United States past the ``agnostic'' phase.

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The two called for the US to launch a five-year, $5 billion program for the commercial development of new technologies to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants, which are understood to be the main US culprit behind acid rain, as well as a key cause of the problem in Canada, whither American airborne pollutants so typically drift. Mr. Lewis has been quoted as saying, ``We can't keep studying this thing to death. . . . We have got to do something about it.''

Still, this acid-rain study, the third major one in the five years of the Reagan administration, is the only one not to recommend a cutback in emissions. With technologies already available, as distinct from new ones needing to be commercialized, acid-rain emissions could be cut 50 percent at an average cost of some 60 cents to $4.50 a month, depending on location, tacked onto a household utility bill.

Perhaps even more important, it's not yet clear what the President's response to the team's findings will be. At a briefing last week, White House spokesman Larry Speakes distanced the administration somewhat from the recommendations and did not say whether Mr. Reagan would respond to them before he meets with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in March. The Lewis-Davis team had been asked to put its recommendations together in advance of the March summit.

It's also not clear where the money for this project is going to come from. The report calls for half of the $5 billion to come from private industry and half from federal coffers. Even observers who want the US to act on acid rain fear that $2.5 billion may be too much loose change to pull out of a budget already facing truncation under the provisions of the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law.

The Canadians, meanwhile, once again look as if they are stuck waiting for the US to act. Presumably Prime Minister Mulroney will be able to press the acid rain issue in March.

The Canadians have a history of getting impassioned over issues that inspire yawns, and maybe occasional news stories -- toward the back of the paper -- in the US. Grass-roots support within the US for effective environmental controls should not be underestimated. But for the Canadians, acid rain is a top-of-the-list concern. And Canada, unlike the US, has demonstrated the political will to act on the problem, having launched on its own a major -- and expensive -- program to cut emissions by its own polluters, even as the US dithers and studies.

The acid rain problem needs more than study and more study. It needs action. To the extent that the joint report embodies a new awareness that there is a problem with airborne pollutants, it is a welcome development. To the extent that the recommended program could prove a diversion to get the US off the hook, it is not.

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