Reason #332 Why Rendell is Better than Swann: Kathleen McGinty and Mercury

At YPP, none of us shy from criticizing our own party. That said, as the Gov. race heats up, I think it is worth highlighting important differences between Ed Rendell and Jerry Seinfeld Lynn Swann.

So, today, a semi-regular feature will begin: A random compilation of Why Rendell is better.

Today's reason why Rendell is better: Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Kathleen McGinty.

See why in the extended entry.

One highlight of Ed Rendell's time as Mayor, as well as his three years as Governor, is his willingness to hire smart people, and get out of the way as they do their job. In this sense, Rendell has less of an ego than many politicians, and it serves him really well. This gives us capable public servants like Mike Diberardinis, Donna Cooper and Kathleetn McGinty.

We hear about McGinty today, because she just did something that I doubt any DEP Secretary would do in a Swann administration: Set tough new rules for mercury emissions.

From the Inquirer:

The new regulation would make Pennsylvania the fifth state - and among the first major coal-producing states - to impose emissions reductions that are stricter than those set by the federal government.

The Pennsylvania proposal would require the state's 36 coal-fired plants to reduce emissions by 80 percent in four years and 90 percent by 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a 70 percent cap on emissions by 2018, although full compliance is not expected until years later.

"The federal rule is woefully inadequate in protecting public health," DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty said in an interview yesterday.

Pennsylvania's coal-fired power plants - two of which are in the Philadelphia suburbs - produce most of the state's 5.7 tons of mercury emitted each year. Pennsylvania is second behind Texas in the amount of mercury released from power plants and other sources, such as factories, and accounts for 10 percent of mercury emissions total nationwide, according to 2003 federal data.

This is great news. Mercury is a toxin that is incredibly dangerous. It is basically cumulative, in that once it gets into your body, it stays there, and just keeps building up, and leads to all sorts of bad outcomes. Of course, industry is -surprise!- against this. They give two main reasons why they are against tougher PA regulations, neither of which I am particularly swayed by.

1) PA should not regulate unilaterally. This reason is, well, dumb. First, it is cheaper for a coal plant to move to another state, do not kid yourself, they will do so. So, if this is a burden too big for them, they will leave. But they aren't leaving. Because being in PA is still cheaper. Second, would they want uniform standards if those uniform standards are really tough? Of course not! It is not that they do want uniform standards, they want uniformly low standards. Given who is in the White House, they know that tough standards are not happening. We are doing what is perfectly reasonable, working within our own state.

2) We are banning the ability of the coal companies to "trade" emissions. A really trendy tool to reduce pollution these days is based on having tradable pollution credits that one plant can buy off another. This is a perfect example of "paper-napkin economics." In theory, credit trading is smart. So, if the US decides it wants only x amount of certain pollution, it can give out credits for the pollution. In theory, it shouldn't matter to us where the pollution comes from, and this kind of system is more efficient, in that it lets the plants with the easiest ability to reduce, do so.

However, the trading idea, like so much of theoretical economics, runs smack dab into the brick wall of reality. First, federal pollution law, as seen in the Clean Water and Clean Air acts was never (and I mean NEVER) meant to limit what states could do within their borders. It was to set a basic floor for allowable pollution, for which states could set their own, tougher standards.

Second, and more importantly, as McGinty says in the article, we do care where pollution originates from. Why? Because for many pollutants, such as mercury, the pollution stays local. So, the US might decide it only wants x amount of mercury, but what it all of that mercury is originating in only PA, Ohio and West Virginia? Say hello to birth defects! The US might set nationwide limits, but, until those limits can be safely spread evenly across all 50 states, tradable permits are a huge mistake.

Cheers to McGinty for protecting PA residents. And thanks to Gov. Rendell, for hiring good people.

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