Dispatches, August 1997
Alas, this scenario isn't all that far-fetched. Pataki recently became the first governor ever to entice a business to set up shop in his state by offering it license to pollute, establishing a precedent that promises to further foul the skies of the nation's third most populous state and that may serve as a model for other communities willing to place job creation above clean air. Playing within the rules of a system that some environmentalists regard as absurd, Pataki bequeathed 150 pollution credits to windshield manufacturer Guardian Glass in exchange for a promise that the company will build a new plant in the town of Geneva, bringing 260 new jobs to the depressed community of 14,800 about 50 miles southeast of Rochester — and about as much nitrogen oxide as an average coal — fired power plant.
Pollution credits, for those not already familiar with the system, are essentially permission slips to sully the air; companies and government agencies whose emissions fall below levels allowed by the federal Clean Air Act sell them to other polluters who might otherwise face huge fines for exceeding their allotment. Each of the credits given to Guardian allows the emission of one ton of nitrogen oxide, an acid-rain-causing gas, and typically sells for $1,000 to $3,000 apiece. Starting next year, the glass manufacturer will begin wafting toxins over Geneva and the nearby Finger Lakes, an area that already receives some of the nation's highest concentrations of acid rain. How can government justify bringing another polluter into such an already besmirched region? "This deal," says John Melia of the state's economic development agency, "is going to improve the air quality of New York."
Yes, the logic of pollution-credit trading is indeed a bit tortuous. What Melia means to say is that Guardian's future spewage has already been offset by reductions at myriad New York state agencies. Pataki pooled those agencies' accumulated pollution credits and then granted just a portion of those credits to Guardian, in accordance with federal law: The Clean Air Act stipulates that every time 100 credits are traded, at least an additional 15 must be permanently retired. Indeed, such pollution-reducing requirements are a hallmark of the trading programs now flourishing in virtually every state, a fact that delights Joe Goffman, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which in 1990 convinced Congress to endorse pollution trading. Goffman, predictably, says he regards Pataki's gift to Guardian not as a flaw in the system, but merely an unfortunate side effect. "Sure, Pataki abused the idea. He should have let taxpayers reap the environmental benefits of the state's reduced emissions," Goffman says. "Still, I think of it sort of like the mole on Cindy Crawford's face — a small blemish on something quite beautiful."
But Rick Hind, a legislative director for Greenpeace, is considerably less sanguine. "Why doesn't he just give amnesty to drug dealers, too?" Hind asks. "The whole idea of pollution credits is little more than political jujitsu. Inevitably this system just moves pollution around — usually by dumping smog on poor communities who can't fight back."
Certainly this seems to be the case in Geneva, which will be saddled with Guardian's pollution partly because its formal opposition to Pataki's scheme was almost nonexistent. And the potential for similar abuse nationwide is great: While no other states have as yet decided to mimic New York's plan, local governments in Delaware, Texas, and Illinois have begun facilitating pollution-credit trades, acting as middlemen to attract smog-intensive industry. Meanwhile, the ghettoization of smog in New York is likely to continue. All state agencies are still under orders to stockpile pollution credits, and Melia says that the governor may eventually use these credits as a lure. "Sure, we'd do it again," Melia says. "The opposition to this is ridiculous. We're creating jobs. Think about it: If you needed a job, do you really think you'd be running around saying that this is deplorable?"