Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Coal (Regulations)

We did it! Amazingly, my experience interning with Greenpeace this past summer actually materialized into national news...sort of. A few months ago, they had me urging citizens to sign their names in support of then-upcoming Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on mercury pollution. The rule was in "public comment" period, which, as I would later learn in class, is a mandated 90-day opportunity for the public to examine and react to proposed EPA rule. Greenpeace sought to deliver many thousands of supportive comments to administrator Lisa Jackson to help demonstrate a public willing to embrace new emissions standards. But by the time I made it back to Boston, however, the fate of our endeavor seemed bleak.

When the White House asked the EPA to withdraw its planned ozone regulations at the beginning of this semester, my U.S. Environmental Policy class and I were far from encouraged. And what would that mean for the upcoming mercury rule?

After learning about the extensive battles fought over the Clean Air Act and its amendments, I've come to appreciate just how difficult it is to change any policy, considering that the effects of any regulation impact workers, companies, and legislators across the nation.

When it comes to protecting the air, a lot has actually been done for us. Back before my generation walked the Earth, industrial America was pumping enough junk into the atmosphere to punch holes in the ozone layer and make asthma a household word. But federal legislation in the 60s and 70s cut back on what kinds of deadly smoke could come out of our tailpipes and smokestacks. Early regulation did the trick; we fought off the threat of acid rain and killed CFCs before they killed us. After 1990, though, the government got awfully quiet on the issue of clean air. In fact, nothing had been done about it since.

Since the 90s, we've only been regulating six atmospheric chemicals: sulfur dioxide (think: acid rain), nitrogen dioxide (think: fertilizers), lead (think: leaded gasoline, old paint), ozone (think: asthma), carbon monoxide (think: automobiles), and particulate matter, which isn't really a chemical at all; that's just the black smokey stuff you know you don't want to breathe in. But that's it. Six chemicals. Got mercury? Go crazy. Adding arsenic? No problem. Chromium? Google owns that, right? For two decades, the EPA was silent on these poisons.

That is, until now. As of yesterday, the EPA will be moving forward with the rule, now finalized. Yes, it's going to cost coal plants money to put in newly required filters. But it's also going to save an estimated $90 billion annually in american healthcare costs, 11,000 lives annually in premature deaths, and oh, did I mention, save the planet?

Plus, with luck, it will make coal less comfortable, improving the outlook for cleaner energy industries like wind and solar. Economy needs a boost? Green tech sounds like a good place to start, and it looks like the emission-reduction-technologies industry is about to get some new business.

But all of that isn't the point. The point is this: That was me. Not literally, I know, but in part. Some college kid standing on street corners with a clip board, asking people to save the planet. And now it's happening.

The EPA move comes at a great time for Greenpeace, in particular, whose "Unfriend Coal" campaign just claimed a major victory last week as social media giant Facebook decided to transition its energy needs away from the dirty fuel. And if I had to guess, I'd estimate that Facebook's environmentally-conscious user base helped encourage it to make the move.

So what does all of this mean? We have the ability to impact our environment. And I'm not talking about nature anymore. You and I, and anyone else who cares, has some role to play in affecting one another and, ultimately, this world. I'm not claiming responsibility for recent environmental victories. I'm claiming responsibility to them. A responsibility to help keep them coming.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." - Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

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