U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   02/02/2005
Statement of Senator Lisa Murkowski
Legislative Hearing on S.131, the Clear Skies Act of 2004

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I too would like to welcome and thank our witnesses for taking time to explore the ramifications of this important legislation. I hope we can all agree on the importance of moving forward with this key part of the President’s agenda.

The Clean Air Act, together with amendments passed in 1990, has been remarkably successful in improving the nation’s air quality. The 2004 EPA annual report notes that since 1970, air pollution overall has been reduced almost 50% while economic growth in the U.S. has increased by 160%. This is one of the great success stories of the century.

One of the most significant chapters in the Clean Air success story has been the reduction of emissions that contribute to acid rain through “cap and trade” policies that set solid upper limits, but allowed trading in allowances for certain pollutants, freeing industry from the most onerous restraints of a command and control regime and allowing it to develop more workable methods of reducing pollution.

I’m pleased to note that this bill does recognize the success of the acid rain program and carries on that good work by taking the next steps toward further reductions in two key Acid Rain precursor chemicals emitted by many large electricity generation facilities, especially those using coal. These chemicals are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). It will also add a new and equally strict ceiling for mercury (Hg), an emission which may have a variety of adverse health effects, especially on pregnant women and infants. In the process, it will achieve significant additional reductions in fine particulates and ozone.

At the same time, it will provide a measure of certainty for the companies it affects. Unlike some proposals, and unlike the purely administrative approach which can be stymied by repeated litigation, it will neither cause massive power-cost increases or open the door to excessive delays. If the goal is to reduce pollution, this is the most practical step that can be taken.

Clear Skies is consistent with the recommendations of the National Research Council, which encouraged air quality efforts that are “less bureaucratic,” with “more emphasis on results than process.” That is precisely what we have in Clear Skies.

One thing we do not have in Clear Skies is regulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant. As someone said the other day, it is the proverbial “elephant in the room.”

CO2 is recognized as a “greenhouse gas.” Many people, including many scientists, believe fervently that human-produced CO2 may cause -- or aggravate -- global climate warming. Many point to Arctic areas – including much of my State of Alaska – and say that physical changes are occurring that prove the case. That being the case, they say, we should treat CO2 as a pollutant and bring it under the same system we are using for chemicals on which the scientific evidence is undisputed.

However, the science on man-made CO2 as an agent of climate change – including in the Arctic -- is anything but undisputed.

CO2 accounts for .04 % of the atmosphere. Less than 5% of that is attributed to human emissions. The concern is that the earth’s ability to scrub CO2 from the air through the growth of plants and other natural methods of sequestering carbon may be exceeded by the addition of human emissions to natural sources.

Much of the debate over CO2 goes back to the so-called “hockey stick” -- a temperature graph developed for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which appeared to show relatively stable temperatures for hundreds of years, then a temperature spike during the 20th Century – presumably due to increased CO2 emissions from internal combustion engines, electrical generation plants, and so on.

However, recent published papers indicate it has serious problems, including adjustments that made past temperatures seem cooler than they were, reliance on overly-narrow data sets, and worst, mathematical faults in the basic formula, which may be so flawed that it would have produced the same “hockey stick” even if one used it to graph random numbers instead of temperature estimates.

Other research shows that in the Arctic, periods of higher temperatures and higher CO2 have occurred multiple times in the past, raising questions about whether today’s experience is truly unique or just part of a natural cycle.

Temperatures in my part of the Arctic also seem to respond to a several-decade long cycle, which may be tied to an ocean phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. In other words, warming Arctic temperatures and effects such as changes in the ice pack and permafrost structures may be driven by regular, predictable changes in the ocean, instead of by CO2-stimulated increases in air temperatures.

All these questions about CO2 as an agent of climate change are still unresolved. Because of that, it is less than wise to rely on claims that there is a scientific “consensus” in which all the questions are answered and all the skeptics hushed.

It does appear clear, however, that adding CO2 regulation to this bill would seriously delay action on NOx, SO2, mercury, ozone and particulates, and that it would impose extraordinary costs by forcing a rapid, large shift toward natural gas. While I would very much like to see Alaska’s abundant natural gas being utilized in the Lower 48 States, and intend to do everything I can to make that happen, I believe it is better to let gas usage and gas supply grow in unison, rather than cause hardship through steps that create large, unplanned increases in energy costs.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I want to congratulate both you and Senator Voinovich, the chair of the Clean Air Subcommittee, your very able staffs, and those in the Administration who helped develop the option before us today. Balancing the need for improved air quality while avoiding unrealistic demands that would damage our economy and social fabric is not an easy task. I believe this is a good start and look forward to a stimulating and informed discussion by our witnesses.