PRESIDENT CARTER'S coal program promises to spend far too much money with far too little regard for air pollution and its threat to public health. The president wants to speed up the electric utilities' shift from fuel oil and gas to coal. The lever is to be $10 billion in coal conversion subsidies to the utilities over the next 10 years.
For $10 billion, the public is entitled to much more careful protection of the environment. The administrations's goal -- to reduce oil imports -- is an important one. But, unhappily, the administration has allowed the coal and utility industries to persuade it to do nothing about the health hazards implicit in this rising volume of coal smoke.
This proposal follows, by eight months, Mr. Carter's energy speech in which he said he would seek legislation to cut utilities' use of oil. Just under half of this country's electricity is already generated by coal. The other four sources -- oil, gas, nuclear power and water power -- supply the rest in roughly equal proportions. The utilities currently use about one of every 12 barrels of oil consumed in this country. It's a substantial amount, and Mr. Carter says his plan can reduce oil imports by a million barrels a day by 1990. That's worth doing. But it is not necessary to degrade the air quality throughout the northeastern United States to accomplish it.
The administration says, plaintively, that it does not intend to relax any of the existing air standards. That's true, but in may parts of the country pollution can increase substantially without exceeding those standards. In any case, they cover local pollution. Present law does not address the phenomenon of acid rain -- the cycle that begins with the burning of coal and ends with the collection of sulfuric acid in lakes and streams far away. All of these hazards are likely to be aggravated by another Carter bill now in the final stages of passage. It would establish an Energy Mobilization Board with power to waive certain environmental rules for projects like power-plant conversions.
Orderly and prudent regulation would instead declare that a generating plant, after being converted to coal, could emit no more sulfur or particulate pollution than it did when it burned oil. That standard is not unusually difficult as a matter of technology, nor would it be unreasonably expewnsive. If Mr. Carter is going to put out billions of dollars as bait for conversion, he might usefully make it conditional on decent performance in pollution abatement.
The utilities, after all, already have one powerful incentive to convert: the price of oil is almost three times the price of coal. Why do they no convert immediately? Because many cannot raise the capital, and most can pass the high cost of oil on to their customers.But the subsidies mean that taxpayers are going to pay for utility improvements that will save both the utility companies and consumers a great deal of money. Perhaps it is worth saying once again that the best way to control these costs, as well as air pollution, is to hold down the rate at which Americans use electricity.