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Green Dividends


The ideals of industry and environmentalism today are often portrayed as locked in battle, as if it were impossible to achieve success in one field without compromising the success of the other.

In Louisiana, especially, industry and environmental interests tend to see themselves in opposition. Environmentalists cite some Louisiana plants' continued violations of the federal Clean Air Act ("Save Your Breath," Dec. 17) as examples of elected officials favoring business interests over public health, while industries in this state argue that the government doesn't go far enough to protect the businesses vital to the state's economy.

But according to a study by the federal Environmental Capital Markets Committee (ECMA), not only is it possible to be pro-business and pro-environment, but also the relationship can be, and often is, mutually beneficial. Louisiana officials didn't heed that report, and they were not alone -- the study went largely ignored across the nation.

ECMA is a committee of the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, an independent federal advisory panel to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Executives and directors from such industries and agencies as Sunoco Inc., the Federal Reserve, Merck & Co. Inc. and the National Wildlife Federation served on ECMA. In May 2000, it released a report, "Green Dividends? The Relationship Between Firms' Environmental Performance and Financial Performance."

The study identified current barriers between environmental and economic objectives and suggested actions to remove those barriers. "Innovators within industry, government and the environmental advocacy community have argued that sound environmental performance is part and parcel of good business practice," the report stated.

"Green Dividends" concluded that many firms don't place much value on environmental strategies and performance, since the financial advantages of these are "still a very uncertain science." Maybe if more people had heeded the report -- in particular, the EPA itself -- the federal government wouldn't be facing heated criticism that its latest changes to the Clean Air Act are sacrificing environmental safeguards to help industries improve profit margins.

The recent rollbacks to the New Source Review (NSR) section of the Clean Air Act appear to support that claim, and Louisiana activists are sounding the alarm that if industries nationwide will be permitted to emit more pollution into the air, Louisiana manufacturers -- already facing EPA violations -- will be among the nation's most egregious offenders.

NSR was based on the premise that aging power plants in the 1970s would soon become defunct and could be exempt from new pollution-control standards as long as they didn't make major modifications that would increase emissions. If they did, NSR required that industries upgrade to the most advanced technologies possible, to control the new source of pollution.

Manufacturers, refineries, power plants and other industries complained they couldn't upgrade or expand their systems without costly NSR-required pollution controls. Through powerhouse lobbyists such as Marc Racicot and Haley Barbour, the current and former national GOP chairmen, the utility industry pressed Capitol Hill to scale NSR back. The EPA -- with administrator Christie Todd Whitman and President George W. Bush noticeably absent -- announced the NSR rollbacks on Nov. 22.

The move ignited protests across the country. Several northeastern states are threatening to sue the federal government out of concern the changes will harm the air quality in their region. One senior EPA enforcement chief, Eric Schaeffer, resigned in disgust over the NSR proposals earlier this year and now directs a nonprofit dedicated to enforcing the nation's environmental laws.

Among those praising the NSR rollbacks were Louisiana's two Democratic senators, John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both of whom voiced their support of altering NSR early on. Breaux, in fact, wrote a letter in March 2001 to Vice President Dick Cheney, condemning "EPA hurdles to expanding refinery capacity."

That's not the best approach for our communities. As stewards of Louisiana's industry and environment, both senators -- and, in particular, Landrieu, who sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- would serve their constituents better if they took to heart the findings of the "Green Dividends" report: that companies which figure out ways to manufacture in a more energy-efficient manner, those that recycle, and those that avoid leaking their products or byproducts into the air or water tend to experience positive results in their bottom line. That would mean working with industry as well as environmentalists to find innovative ways to manufacture and produce.

Several national environmental groups are preparing to challenge the NSR rollbacks in federal court and to address another proposal to change NSR. This one would clarify the meaning of "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" for industries nationwide. Environmental groups are asking the EPA for a 120-day comment period, as well as public hearings on the proposed changes across the country. This is a reasonable request.

We urge the EPA and Louisiana's congressional delegation to encourage industries to improve their environmental as well as their financial bottom lines. Sens. Landrieu and Breaux also should embrace the ECMA's "Green Dividends" report by supporting public hearings on the most recent NSR proposal.

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