The Energy 202: How George H.W. Bush helped turn acid rain into a problem of yesteryear

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August 1988. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via Reuters)

When William K. Reilly met with George H.W. Bush after his 1988 presidential election win, he had a condition for taking the job as Bush’s chief environmental law enforcer.

Reilly wanted an assurance from the president-elect that he would update the nation’s main air pollution statute. Last amended in 1977, many in the late 1980s saw the law as woefully outdated in addressing the headline environmental crisis of the day. Acid rain, the product of sulfur oxides and other pollutants pumped into the air by cars and coal-fired power plants, was sterilizing lakes and streams from the Rockies to the Adirondacks.

“I’ll do it,” Bush said according to Reilly, who from 1989 to 1993 served as his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“On the environment, he promised to be the ‘environmental president,’ ” Reilly told The Post in an interview. “He made any number of significant both gestures and beyond gestures —decisions — the first thing which was he proposed the new Clean Air Act.”

Two years later, Bush signed into law an amended version of the anti-pollution law. “He was as good as his word,” Reilly said.

Bush died at 94 on Friday in his home in Houston.

The signing of the 1990 Clean Air Act was Bush’s biggest contribution to his significant if imperfect environmental legacy. The law is credited for making acid rain an issue largely  of yesteryear. It did so through a market-based mechanism that at the time was experimental but since then has been heralded by economists and environmentalists as enormously effective.

“Thanks to President Bush, we don’t hear much about acid rain these days,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which worked with the Bush administration to develop the air amendments.

It is also the version of the Clean Air Act still largely on the books. Given the modern-day gridlock in Congress over environmental issues, the law has received no major update in the quarter-century since Bush left office.

Bush campaigned on being an “environmental president.” At the time, many environmentalists saw such a promise from a former oil executive and member of the Reagan administration, which reduced environmental enforcement, as implausible.

Bush vowed there would be “no net loss of wetlands” under his watch. He promised to address another environmental issue —  climate change — just entering public consciousness at the time as a debilitating heat wave scorched much of the United States in the summer of 1988.

“Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect,” Bush once famously said on the campaign trail.

By the end of his term, though, many environmentalists thought Bush had fallen short in issuing regulations to protect wetlands or passing laws to address climate change. Just a few months into office, the Bush White House even admitted to censoring the congressional testimony of NASA climate scientist James Hansen to emphasize the uncertainly of his predictions of severe storms and droughts to come because of rising temperatures.

The biggest blemish came in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez slammed into a reef in Alaskaand disgorged about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Critics in Alaska and elsewhere at the time wished the Bush administration got more deeply involved role in the cleanup effort, which was largely left to Exxon.

Still, on today’s highest-profile environmental issue — climate change — Reilly credits the Clean Air Act along with lower prices for natural gas for coal’s declining share of the U.S. power market. That fuel is the most carbon-intensive form of electricity generation.

“A large reason why coal is being phased out in the United States is that the Clean Air Act, with its specifications on and adaptation to mercury, sulfur dioxide and NOx, increase the cost of coal-fired power,” Reilly said.

The Bush administration broke a logjam of resistance in Congress from coal-state lawmakers east of the Mississippi by winning the support of western lawmakers whose constituents stood to benefit from the revisions.

The coal deposits in states such as Wyoming and Montana contain less sulfur than their eastern counterparts. That meant power plants buying western coal could more easily compete in the credit-trading scheme that allows low-emissions plants to sell credits to higher-emissions ones.

“It’s not an easy piece of legislation to pass,” said Monica Medina, who as lawyer for Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the 1990s oversaw the law’s implementation. She later was a political appointee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“It was complicated and highly technical, a lot of the science involved,” she added. “But he was determined.”

Bush’s update to the Clean Air Act not only put in place that inventive “cap-and-trade” program to mitigate acid rain, which later became a model in other countries for addressing greenhouse gas emissions. But it also empowered citizens to seek restitution from polluters in court and the federal government to control for 189 new toxic substances.

“Of all the legislative history of his tenure, what I most and best recall is the central role Bush played in the long and difficult struggle to protect the health of Americans from the harmful effects of polluted air,” George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat and Senate majority leader during Bush’s presidency, wrote in the Bangor Daily News.

By the EPA’s account, the 1990 law had a staggeringly positive benefit in the lives and livelihoods of Americans.  One agency study found passage and enforcement of the law will prevent 17 million lost work days and forestall more than 230,000 premature deaths in 2020 alone.

Upon his death Friday, some in the environmental movement sung the praises of an ex-president whose legislative legacy on environmental issues stands in contrast to that of the current commander-in-chief.

The GOP’s shift toward the outright dismissal of climate science over the past three decades was accentuated last month by the release of a major climate report from 13 federal agencies that found increasingly deadly wildfires,  intense hurricanes and other effects of global warming were rocking the United States.

When asked about the report, President Trump pointedly told reporters, “I don’t believe it.” Many congressional Republicans followed Trump’s suit to brush aside its findings as “alarmism.”

So why did the Trump administration approve the release of such a climate report started under Obama? The answer is Bush. A 1990 law he signed, directing the federal government to study the changing climate, mandated its publication.

Republicans “have to acknowledge the significance of climate change and carbon dioxide’s contributions to it,” Reilly said. “Most of them have not done that.”