Carter's acid-rain clouds over Canada
Following the announcement that the Canadian Government aided some of the Americans in Tehran, cartoons appeared around Canada with Americans at the border saying, "Thank you, Canada." Ironically, and unfortunately for America's image, in these same cartoons the waving Americans also were gazing at American clouds over Canada spelling "Acid Rain."
A more true-to-life representation might also have shown polluted clouds over America. And since the announcement of President Carter's electrical generating coal conversion plan, it is not improbable that cartoons will appear in the Canadian press with Canadians waving, "You're welcome, America," as more of Canada's own sooty clouds pass to the United States.
The fact of the matter is that the President's coal conversion program, as thus far announced, will result in increases in air pollution, and particularly acid precipitation. This will have unfavorable impact on the environments of both Canada and the US, and not the least consequences will be reductions of forest and agricultural potential. This fact weakens the argument for coal conversion, in addition to presenting new and difficult problems for the new Trudeau administration and US-Canada relations.
The President is correct in underscoring the need for coal conversion. The United States is spending $90 billion a year for foreign oil, when at the same time it possesses 30 percent of the world's coal reserves. The President's conversion plan alone is expected to save 400,000 barrels of oil a day by 1985 and another 600,000 by 1990. What is more, coal conversion means more American jobs in mining, in transportation, and elsewhere.
The President also is correct in concluding that his proposal will not result in violations of legal air quality standards.As amended to 1977, the Clean Air Act, for example, does not preclude utilities from dispersing sulfur oxides over wide distances through the use of tall smokestacks. The focus of the act is on local grund level pollutant concentrations only, and not on the total atmospheric loading of pollutants. Thus utilities converting to coal could increase pollution-causing emissions by simply dispersing them.
No less important in drafting the Clean air Act, lawmakers concentrated on controlling emissions from new electrical generating facilities only. It was a conscious decision to be lenient on plants already in existence. The President is proposing to focus on converting these older plants not strictly covered by the act.
Though legally sound, the President's coal conversion proposal violates the spirit of the Clean Air Act. Those who fought for environmental and agricultural safeguards are not going to stand for pollution they thought they had ensured against.
Congress increasingly is aware of the economic consequences of acid precipitation. Some regions of the country, and not just the Northeast, are experiencing increases of 25 to 40 times more acid than "natural" rainfall. Already it is known that in the Ohio valley, where early research has been concentrated, acid precipitation is causing millions of dollars in crop damage. It is feared that the leaching of minerals might be just one of the ill effects for forested regions.
By itself, the future of US-Canada relations warrants a redrafting of the President's coal conversion proposal. As it now stands, the proposal puts the Trudeau administration in a difficult position, and in fact could contribute toward increased federal-provincial tensions within Canada.
Under Prime Minister Joe Clark, there was a Canadian consensus for US-Canada air quality negotiations. Each province became a full member of the Inter-Government Steering Committee, the Canadian negotiating team.
This was no easy task. In Canada, unlike the US, the provinces have autonomy in the environmental sphere. Mr. Clark succeeded, nevertheless, in reducing the levels of acid precipitation originating from the US. Both the US and Canadian governments agreed to begin formal air quality agreement negotiations in July last year.
The question now, however, is whether Prime Minister Trudeau will have a tough enough reaction to the Carter coal conversion proposal. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec, where pollution from the US is heaviest, may demand that Mr. Trudeau cry violation fo the Water Boundaries Treaty of 1909, a weak but not improbable argument. They may also insist on the undoing of the 1965 auto pact, or something worse.
Mr. Trudeau has enough of a mandate to resist being this drastic. If so, the provinces most likely will go it along alone? in the environmental sphere once again. This will spell the end of the air quality agreement negotiations and prompt the cartoons featuring "You're welcome, America."
Left to themselves, Canada's provinces will have no incentive to decrease air pollution crossing to the US. If anything the Carter proposal will only encourage transborder air pollution, for Candian plants cannot be expected to contain emissions causing acid precipitation when the US does not. If Canada did, there would be no reason for the US to negtiate with Canada in the future.
It would have been far better for the President to view those expressing environmental concerns about his proposal as allies. Among reassuring alternatives are coal washing, the fluidized-bed combustion process, and encouraging a review of incentives to utilities. Likewise, if the President had included provisions for the strict control of emissions from older generating facilities, or for ajustments of the Clean Air Act to include reductions of the levels of sulfur and nitrogen oxides causing acid precipitation, America would have a clear energy alternative.
Coal then would be something on which all could agree.