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`Trading' Pollutants Is a Big First Step Toward Cleaner Air

Much as we might wish for it, there is no easy way to get rid of air pollution - no simple answer to fume-spewing cars or fossil-fuel-burning power plants. It will take political compromise, a change in public attitudes and lifestyles, and, most of all, innovative ideas.

A groundbreaking agreement between electric utilities in Arizona and New York is one such idea. It's an important practical step toward reducing pollutants associated with global warming and acid rain.

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It sounds like a game-board maneuver and works like this:

The Arizona Public Service Company is swapping 25,000 tons of sulfur dioxide with the Niagara Mohawk Power Company in exchange for 1.75 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The utilities aren't actually trucking this stuff back and forth but trading ``allowances'' - the amounts they would have been able to release under the Clean Air Act. By doing better than they had to in reducing emissions, they have built up credits that are marketable under 1990 amendments to the law.

Niagara Mohawk will donate the sulfur dioxide allowances (which have a market value of about $3.8 million) to a nonprofit organization that will ``retire'' them. The utility thus will get a tax break of about $1 million to invest in further carbon-dioxide-reduction programs.

Arizona Public Service will use its newly acquired CO2 allowance as a kind of insurance against its own carbon-reduction program in an area of rapid growth. But company officials say they intend to meet their commitment without the credits and suggest they may ``retire'' them as well.

This is good news for the Grand Canyon (which has been filling up with smog) and for the northern forests of New York (which have suffered from acid rain). It's working in New York because Niagara Mohawk is burning cleaner fuels and promoting energy conservation. It's working in the Southwest because Arizona Public Service is investing in new scrubbers at the Navajo Generating Station.

``This is a gutsy, innovative solution that cleans the air without breaking corporate or household budgets,'' US Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said in announcing the agreement. It proves that ``market-based solutions will always yield the most cost-effective outcomes while achieving the greatest environmental benefit,'' she said.

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A key player in the deal has been the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a private organization that specializes in linking science, economics, and law to find reasonable solutions to environmental problems. EDF has been advising both utilities and the Energy Department.

This first-of-its-kind agreement is good, but there will have to be a lot more to meet clean-air goals. The Clean Air Network (a coalition of groups) reported last week that ``more than 100 million Americans still live in areas with unhealthful air quality.'' And it noted that many states have yet to come up with plans required under the Clean Air Act to meet federal health standards.

Under the Climate Change Convention agreed to at the Earth Summit in Brazil two years ago, 160 countries have agreed to reduce ``greenhouse gases'' to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But it's a pretty weak agreement, and many countries have done little.

Meeting in the Netherlands recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a United Nations-sponsored group of scientists) declared that ``even if global emissions could be stabilized, atmospheric concentrations [of carbon dioxide] would continue to rise for at least 200 years.''

This means vigorous ways to reduce polluting gases below 1990 levels will have to be found - in other words, not producing them in the first place through energy conservation and pioneering efforts like the ones that utilities in Arizona and New York have just launched.

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