05/10/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

U.S. Acid Rain Regulations: Did They Work?

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok.

U.S. acid rain regulations have worked. What's more, they didn't seem to get in the way of the country's longest economic expansion.

Environmental regulations are none too popular these days. According to some, they're plain ineffective; for others, they're job killers; and for still others they're downright un-American , subversive even. The answer for these anti-regulation hawks: roll back regulations, and rein in or even do away with the Environmental Protection Agency.

That stuff may play well to a polarized electorate, but it's not a sound idea. Why? A healthy, vibrant people and environment are what makes living in the United States so great, and we can thank EPA and, more broadly, environmental regulations for a good deal of that vibrancy.

Case in Point: The U.S. Acid Rain Program

precipitation over Lake Champlain The acid rain program has produced stunning reductions in the amount of acidity measured in rainfall and deposited in lakes and streams. As for the damage done prior to this regulation, waterways like Lake Champlain are still in recovery. (EPA/Ian Cohen)

Acid rain, according to data I came across last week from the University of Delaware, dropped remarkably in Lewes, Delaware, between 1990 and 2010, a decline attributed to emission cuts enforced through the acid rain program. How did that happen? Funny you should ask.

The program to address the growing acidity in rain falling in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s was established in the Clean Air Act amendments signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The relevant section, Title IV, required large cuts in the emissions of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides from power plants "to reduce the adverse effects of acid deposition." These emissions cuts would have the added benefit of reducing fine particle pollution and ozone, which can lead to aggravated heart and lung problems, including asthma, irregular heartbeats, and nonfatal heart attacks. The cuts would also reduce haze, which limits visibility in places where visibility is important -- our national parks, for example.

Quite controversial at the time, Title IV prescribed a cap-and-trade mechanism for reaching a nationwide target for sulfur dioxide emissions -- controversial for acid rain then, controversial for climate change now. Another source of controversy was the program's supposed costs: industry projected them to go as high as $1,000-$1,500 per ton of sulfur dioxide reduced, while forecasting a hike from all the Clean Air Act amendments on many states' electricity prices of up to 10 percent [pdf]. Other early projections, from sources ranging from industry to government, estimated that the annual cost of compliance for the sulfur dioxide portion of the program would be between $2.4 billion and $5 billion [pdf] for 1995-1999.

Bottom line, said many, especially those in industry: too expensive.

So What Happened With Our Acid Rain Problems?

Fortunately we are in a position to answer that question, at least in part, because the government had the foresight to establish the National Acid Deposition Program (NADP), which among other things maintains a national network of sites monitoring air quality and the composition of precipitation throughout the country.

In the case of the acidity of rain, the results are striking. Over a period of 16 years, from 1994 to 2010, we have seen a decrease in the concentration of acid-forming compounds in rain falling on the Northeast, where ecological impacts of acid rain were most severe, and in the Southeast. Other NADP data indicate that lakes and streams in some affected areas have begun to recover. That sounds like success, but there is a caveat. The emission reductions accomplished thus far do not look to be sufficient to have restored some of our waterways to complete health. For example, while "sulfate deposited by rain in New England" has declined by about 40 percent, according to NADP data, EPA says "more time and more emissions reductions are needed before the lakes and rivers in New England will fully recover from the effects of acid rain."

Nevertheless, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the acid rain program with its use of cap and trade was very effective in reducing emissions of acid rain-causing pollutants. Emissions of sulfur dioxide in 2009 were about one third of what they were in 1990.

acid rain levels in 1994

acid rain levels in 2010

These maps demonstrate the change in acid precipitation from 1994 to 2010. Hydrogen ion is a measure of the acidity of precipitation, and wet deposition means that the acidity is incorporated into precipitation considered "wet,' such as rain, snow, fog and mist. (Source: National Atmospheric Deposition Program)

OK, but What About the Economics?

Was the acid rain program an economic downer for the United States? Consider three measures.

  1. Costs -- Projected vs. Actual: Remember those early cost estimates of up to $5 billion annually to run the sulfur dioxide program between 1995 and 1999?

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the agency tasked with providing Congress with objective, nonpartisan data and analyses related to energy, has calculated that the annual costs were only $836 million. The actual cost range per ton of sulfur dioxide [pdf] during this period was between $100 and $200. EPA's initial 1990 estimate, which had projected that annual costs for the sulfur dioxide program from 2000 on would rise to about $6 billion annually [pdf], was also off: the actual annual costs for the whole program since 2000 have been about half that [pdf].

    And the health benefits from Title IV to us Americans in the form of improved air quality are estimated to be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars annually [pdf]. Not bad.

  2. Electricity bills: Did the regulations foisted upon the power industry lead to a huge jump in our electricity prices? You won't find any evidence for that from the EIA.

    As illustrated below, U.S. electricity prices at first rose modestly before falling through the 1990s as the program was implemented. Prices have risen in the 2000s. The group's latest report projects modestly falling prices in 2013 due to the low cost of natural gas.

    U.S. Electricity Prices Chart calculated from these EIA data [pdf] and the data [xls] found in Figure 24 of this EIA report from May 2012.
  3. Economic expansion. And finally it is perhaps relevant to note that the acid rain program took off in the 1990s at the same time the nation's longest economic expansion, with its almost 21 million jobs added to the economy, took off.

The environment and the economy. At least in the case of the acid rain program, looks like you can have your cake and eat it to.