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Passing the acid test

WITH November elections looming on the horizon, and time running short for legislative action, one of the more pressing questions is whether the United States Congress will close the session by ``passing the acid test.'' I refer to the acid rain legislation cosponsored by 162 members of the House of Representatives, which recently passed by the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment and will now go to the floor for a vote if approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill would achieve a 10 million-ton reduction in sulfur-dioxide emission by 1996 and cut another acid rain pollutant, nitrogen oxides, by 4 million tons per year.

The strongly bipartisan bill provides each state with considerable flexibility in determining how it will choose to meet the 1996 standards. Midwestern states, for example, with thousands of coal-mining jobs at stake, may require costly stack scrubbers that clean high-sulfur coal to protect those jobs.

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Other states which place a higher priority on reducing ratepayer's utility bills may choose to reduce consumption of high-sulfur coal.

Unfortunately, opponents of acid rain control measures have portrayed this bill as a budget-buster that will cost utilities and their ratepayers upward of $115 billion over the next several decades. They refer to the bill as the ``OPEC Relief Act'' because they conclude that utilities will be forced to increase vulnerable foreign oil imports.

Recent analyses suggest that the cheapest way to comply with the law would be for utilities to help their customers install superefficient lights, motors, and appliances.

According to recent congressional testimony, the full use of the best electricity-saving devices now on the market would quadruple US electric end-use efficiency at less than the cost of simply operating and maintaining dirty coal plants!

With this ``least cost'' approach, utilities would therefore burn less coal and emit less sulfur, and ratepayers' bills would decrease simultaneously, because the efficiency improvements would dramatically reduce demand for electricity.

According to some assessments, from a cash standpoint utilities would do far better by adopting the least-cost approach than either installing scrubbers everywhere or doing nothing at all. This is because efficiency investments would free up utility capital that would otherwise have to be sunk into power plant construction. When you look at the bottom line, it is 10 times as cheap to invest in efficiency as in new construction.

The utilities' stream of savings could be used to finance further acid rain reductions by investing in any combination of scrubbers, fuel-switching, or clean coal-burning technologies like fluidized-bed combustion.

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Preliminary analyses also indicate that fewer coal-mining jobs would be lost under this least-cost approach than if utilities simply switched to low-sulfur Western coal. The Northeast and the Midwest will benefit in new jobs because of manufacturers of efficiency devices located in these regions.

The State of Wisconsin has already officially included efficiency investments in its very strong acid rain reduction strategy. If other states follow its example, it is a virtual certainty that ratepayers will save money while cleaning up the environment.

Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island is the ranking minority member of the House of Representatives' Science and Technology Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agriculture Research, and Environment.

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