Reflections on the Environmental Legacy of George H.W. Bush

By Betsy Monseu, American Coal Council

With former President George H.W. Bush’s passing late last year came images and reflections on his life and leadership. Photos, videos and postings show his extraordinary level of personal outreach. That was key to the success and political accomplishments of “Bush 41”. As Union Pacific Railroad carried him to his final resting place
in Texas, Americans watched and a patriotic wave swept the country. Union Pacific has generously made their ma-terials available at and I highly recommend a visit.

President Bush’s political legacy included stewarding environmental improvements while supporting market-based solutions and holding the line on costs. His background in the oil busi-ness and serving in Congress and as vice president gave him a perspective that was both practical and politically savvy.

He campaigned on a platform that included emphasis on the economy and addressing environmental challenges, including acid rain. Once elected, Presi-dent Bush lost no time putting together a plan for changes to the Clean Air Act, which had not been amended since 1977. Lowering sulfur dioxide emissions to reduce acid rain was a key objec-tive of the package, and it had major implications for coal mining states and the power sector’s coal use.

With large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, bipartisan consensus was critical to legislative success. The President was concerned about the cost of compliance, and out of that concern came the concept of a national “cap and trade” program intended to provide market-based and flexible compliance options to minimize costs. A final bill was hammered out and the Clean Air Act Amendments legislation was signed in 1990, with compliance dead-lines of 1995 for Phase I and 2000 for Phase II.

Phase I called for significant sulfur dioxide or SO2 emissions reduc-tions from coal electric generat-ing units (EGUs) located primarily east of the Missis-sippi River. Phase II capped emissions nationally, thus impacting the entire coal fleet.

Generators could comply by installing control technology – scrub-bers – to remove SO2, or changing the coal or mix of coals. A market was established for buying and selling emissions allowances.

Scrub versus switch decisions were made by utilities, with big impacts for coal mining regions along with other market conditions and forces already in play like the development of the Pow-der River Basin.

I was working in the fuels group of a Midwestern utility in the mid- to late-1980s as we began considering sulfur dioxide emissions reductions. Our plants had burned a steady diet of Illinois Basin coal. We started to search for low sulfur compliance coal, a search that initially took me to eastern Kentucky. I haven’t forgotten the landing at the airport in Pikeville. The flat Midwest has no mountains for airplanes to contend with! As this was my first experience to see a mine outside of the Illinois Basin, the tour vividly showed how different underground mining conditions can be. It was a low-ceiling operation, and lying nearly flat to get out to the face was like something out of Star Wars!