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Volume 10, Issue 1 — January 1980


Economic Efficiency in Pollution Control: EPA Issues "Bubble" Policy for Exisiting Sources Under Clean Air Act

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been the target in recent years of growing criticism that its pollution control requirements are in many instances unnecessarily rigid and excessively expensive. These pressures, in combination with EPA's developing interest in economically based alternatives to traditional regulatory approaches to pollution abatement,1 have led the Agency to take several steps toward a regime that will, in its view, reconcile improved environmental quality with economic growth at the lowest possible cost. In this vein, the Agency is now making a major effort to encourage the development and use of alternative emission reduction strategies which are less costly and more flexible than current regulatory approaches. The basic aim of all these measures is to allow sources in certain circumstances the freedom to adopt more economically efficient pollution controls.

As a central component of this effort, EPA recently promulgated2 its final policy on the use of the "bubble" concept by existing sources to abate air pollution emissions. The concept is so named because it treats a source with multiple emission points as if an imaginary bubble with a single vent had been placed over it. The focal point for regulation under this approach is the aggregate of all emissions from the source. Provided that increases and decreases in emissions from plant components offset one another, theoperator would be free to adopt a different set of controls on stacks and other emission points as long as the alternative control strategy does not delay compliance with statutory deadlines or have an adverse impact on air quality. Emission reduction thus may be lessened on those plant components that are most expensive to control and correspondingly maximized on those emission points that are least costly to clean up.

96th Congress, 1st Session: Environmental Issues in Limbo

From an environmental perspective, the midterm record of the 96th Congress was notable less for its achievements than as convincing evidence that the climate of concern and commitment to protection that led to a surge in environmental legislation in the early part of the 1970s has drastically changed. There is a certain irony in this shift because it comes at a time when continuing and newly recognized threats to environmental integrity beset the country as never before. Yet, as the new decade begins, there is a greater understanding that the problems are more complex than was once thought and that the answers are correspondingly less obvious. In all quarters, there is a heightened sensitivity to the economic costs of environmental protection, and it is often accompanied by a somewhat jaundiced look at the tangible and intangible benefits that such costs produce. Despite the solid evidence of continuing public support for environmental protection,1 political opposition to environmental laws has broadened and become more powerful if the most recent session of Congress serves as a guide. In 1979, there was little final legislative action on environmental issues, and even rear-guard efforts to preserve earlier gains had difficulty competing with other major national concerns regarding the economy and foreign affairs.

Energy was the dominant issue in 1979, as environmental considerations were de-emphasized to facilitate a number of schemes to increase the nation's energy supplies. While 1980 may see a retreat from the President's proposed massive federal subsidization of synthetic fuel production, an action that could have major environmental consequences, a plan to overcome the delays in licensing energy facilities by waiving the deliberate review procedures set forth in environmental statutes is expected to pass. Protection of the vast undeveloped Alaskan lands was the major non-event as Congress failed to follow up on President Carter's administrative initiatives at the end of 1978.2 Congress did, however, make progress in grappling with the issues of hazardous wastes and spills of oil and toxic substances, but their final resolution in a Congress sensitive to the upcoming elections is difficult to forecast.