American Electric Power faces the acid rain music

The company must pay $4.6 billion to comply with the requirements of the Clean Air Act -- rules the Bush administration did its best to get rid of.

Published October 9, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

The news that American Electric Power has agreed to settle a long-running federal lawsuit by agreeing to pay a whopping $4.6 billion fine is rightfully being celebrated by environmentalists everywhere. A slew of environmental organizations, eight Northeastern states, and the Environmental Protection Agency had sued the power utility for failing to upgrade its facilities with pollution-controlling equipment as required by the Clean Air Act.

But there's a nice little back story that isn't yet getting much play in the wire stories covering the settlement. The lawsuit was filed in 1999, during the waning days of the Clinton administration. Under the Clean Air Act, any substantial modification of an existing power generation plant had to include new technology to cut emissions. But during the Bush administration, the EPA attempted to roll back that requirement, issuing a new rule that would allow power plants to upgrade without installing the emission-controlling technology.

In March 2006, a federal appeals court struck down the EPA's bald-faced attempt to betray its reason for existence -- one of the relatively few cases, up to that point, in which the Bush administration did not get its way.

One could not ask for a clearer demonstration of the political priorities of the Democratic and Republican parties with respect to the environment. The pro-acid rain GOP attempted to make it easier for power companies to pollute. A Democratic administration attempted to make it harder. After a battle royale, the environment came out the winner. This time.

In the context of last week's How the World Works post acquainting ourselves with the ideas of economist John Krutilla, who was one of the first to begin thinking analytically about how to put a price tag on natural beauty, the timing of the American Electric Power settlement couldn't be better. Causing acid rain should be very, very expensive. $4.6 billion? It's a start.

Incidentally, Tim Haab, who co-maintains the Environmental Economics blog along with John Whitehead, posted a considered response to my griping wondering why it took so long for economists to figure out that the natural environment must have intrinsic economic value. He took particular issue with one Salon reader who asked, "Is 'priceless' equivalent to 'worthless' to an economist? Like if one can't estimate the value of something, does it then have no value?" Haab's answer is worth reading.

But the whole priceless/worthless exchange also echoes, inadvertently, the credit card advertising campaigns that proved to be a hot topic among readers Monday morning. Which inspires the following:

The cost of fixing your coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of acid rain-causing chemicals by 69 percent over the next 10 years: $4.6 billion.

The cost of electing a president who believes the Environmental Protection Agency's purpose is to figure out ways to allow industry to pollute more: priceless.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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