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This May be the Year for Acid-Rain Legislation

March 16, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congress, spurred on by President Bush’s promise to do something this year about acid rain, is beginning what could be the final confrontation in an eight-year, multi-million dollar lobbying war over clean air.

The opening volley was fired Thursday when more than 100 House members, most allied with environmental groups, introduced legislation to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 40 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by about half that amount. The gases are the two major components of acid rain.

The bill drew expected, strong support from environmental groups, but was quickly opposed by the coal, auto and electric utilities industries, which have fought environmentalists to an expensive draw since the Reagan administration took office in 1981.

″This is the year for clean air,″ said Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., a sponsor of the legislation along with Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Silvio Conte, R-Mass. He cited the ″new attitude″ of President Bush compared to that of former President Reagan, and ″increased public awareness and concern about our environment.″

Environmental groups cite Bush’s promise to solve the acid rain problem, made during a trip to Canada last month, as one of two political developments that signal the battle may be near an end. The other is the levation to majority leader of Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, who sponsored last year’s clean-air legislation in that chamber.

″For industry, I think they know the ‘no-bill’ option is pretty well off the table,″ said Alexandra Allen, attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a private environmental lobbying organization.

Ron Sykes, senior Washington represenative of General Motors Corp., acknowledged, ″The pressures for doing something this year are considerably more than they were last year.″

But Sykes said ″we seem to be charging down a path that is driven by what we’ve learned in the early years″ about acid rain, and ″not what we’re about to learn″ from a 10-year federal study scheduled for completion in mid-1990.

He suggested the nation wait for the study, a recommendation that Reagan supported but Bush rejected in Canada.

Gayla Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the nation’s largest coal producer, Peabody Holding Co. of St. Louis, said her company ″is opposed to additional controls beyond those already in place in the Clean Air Act.″

And Diane Smiroldo, a spokeswoman for Edison Electric Institute, representing the nation’s electric utilities, said that ″the current Clean Air Act is working″ and that ″any legislation at this point is premature.″

Acid rain and another aspect of the clean air debate - dirty air caused by ozone and carbon monoxide - have been among the most heavily lobbied issues in Congress.

According to records on file in the House and Senate, Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain was the top lobbying spender in 1986. The organization, bankrolled principally by electric utilities and coal companies, spent $3,028,235 on behalf of a grassroots direct mail campaign opposing legislation mandating stricter acid rain emissions. Acid rain legislation did not get near the floor that year.

But that figure did not include spending by individual automakers, lectric utilities and chemical and coal companies and their trade associations, according to Ms. Allen. She said environmental lobbying groups spent only a fraction of industry expenditures.

The industry groups also have had strong allies in Congress: the House Energy and Commerce chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and the former Senate majority leader, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

The House bill would require that sulfur dioxide emissions be reduced by 10 million tons and nitrogen oxide emissions by 4 million tons by 1998. Currently, an estimated 22 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 21 million tons of nitrogen oxide are being emitted into the air.

The two gases are converted in the atmosphere into acids, which travel far from their starting points to pollute lakes and forests and, according to some health experts, cause serious respiratory problems for asthmatics, children and the elderly.

The leading sources of sulfur dioxide are coal-burning electric power plants and industrial facilities. Nitrogen oxides are emitted in approximately equal amounts by motor vehicles and industry.

Congress has been divided along regional lines. The Northeast, the primary victim of acid rain, wants immediate action. Midwestern states, with many older, coal-fired power plants, fear controls that will boost electric bills.

States that produce large amonts of high-sulfur coal - Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania - worry that controls will cause massive job losses in the coal industry.

The West, where low-sulfur coal is mined and acid rain is not a serious problem, is reluctant to pay the cost for new controls.

Under the new House bill:

-Electric utilities would receive federal subsidies to protect residential customers from rate hikes of more than 10 percent as a result of the sulfur dioxide controls.

-Motor vehicle manufacturers would be required to tighten tailpipe standards for nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons.

-The EPA would be required to control hydrocarbon vapors by requiring onboard vehicle canisters or controls at the gas pump. Sykes said the canisters are unsafe, and could cause fires in crashes, in hot weather, and if a leak develops in the emissions system.