Congress should improve Clear Skies legislation

Detroit Free Press: American lungs would get more from good enforcement of the 35-year-old Clean Air Act than from the Clear Skies plan proposed by President Bush. But for the next four years at least, good enforcement looks more and more like wishful thinking. Still, the status quo may be worse than the Bush alternative, sad as that is to admit.
When a U.S. Senate committee takes up Clear Skies, the best result would be some old-fashioned wrangling that improves the bill enough to make it passable. For starters, it is crucial to tighten the leisurely deadlines in the bill. Electric utilities and smokestack industries can do better to clear the air, especially after all their shilly-shallying of the past few years.
One of the chief changes under Clear Skies would move virtually all pollution control to a cap-and-trade system, which would achieve results industry-wide but not assure that any one plant, or locale, gets cleaned up. Cap and trade has worked quite well in one program, to cut back on acid rain, reducing damage to Eastern forests.
The results are less certain for the problems that Clear Skies is meant to address -- smog-forming pollutants, in particular. An acceptable version of the bill has to have a strong enforcement backstop, so the Environmental Protection Agency or the states can continue to step in if local hotspots remain.
Then there's mercury
Finally, there's mercury. After years of legal prodding, the EPA is supposed to rule next month on how much mercury coal-burning utilities need to get out of their smoke. There's every indication the result won't be any better than what's proposed under Clear Skies -- a 70-percent reduction -- and could be worse. That's settling for a level the industry knows it can meet, not pushing them to get even more inventive.
It will be years if not decades before the country gets another shot at controlling mercury. If Congress can pull off a tougher standard on mercury, that alone could justify proceeding with Clear Skies. The continued presence of mercury in fish in almost every inland lake threatens the health of Americans, especially children exposed in the womb, and damages the sport-fishing business so important in Michigan. The biggest remaining source is what drops out of the sky from smokestack emissions, and it's irresponsible not to get tough.
Finally, although no one need shed tears for the utilities, they would benefit from the certainty that a new law would bring. That's a plus in an era of deregulation and concern about the stability of the electric grid.
Action in Congress will come down to whether there are enough environmentally conscious Republicans to bridge the gap between the Bush plan and Democrats, who have mostly gone into all-or-nothing mode. Stalemate means years of more haranguing -- hardly a breath-taking prospect.