A student group at the University of Iowa College of Law is now the proud owner of one ton of sulfur dioxide emissions. They plan to keep the ton, but fortunately don't need to find a closet big enough to store it.
"By purchasing one ton of sulfur dioxide emissions, that's one ton of emissions that will never be produced and never become pollution," said Harmony Mappes, co-president of the law school's Environmental Law Society. "In addition, by bidding up the price, we make it more expensive for companies to produce these pollutants and, we hope, encourage them to install pollution control technologies to reduce their emissions."
The ELS purchased the emissions for $400 during the U.S. EPA's annual emissions auction in March. Under federal law, producers of sulfur emissions must buy shares at auction in order to produce more emissions than what the law allows.
Sulfur dioxide emissions are typically produced by manufacturing plants that are powered by burning such sulfur-containing fuels as coal. Once in the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide emissions can cause respiratory problems, particularly to children, the elderly and people with asthma, sometimes causing long-term respiratory illness. Sulfur dioxide is also a major factor in acid rain, harming plants, animals, soil and water resources, as well as cause damage to man-made structures, such as buildings and statues.
Energy plants tend to be the largest producers of emissions, although metal processing facilities, cement manufacturing facilities, petroleum refineries, locomotives and large ships also produce the gas.
The Clean Air Act established a minimum amount of sulfur dioxide emissions that a single manufacturing plant can produce, Mappes said. Beyond that, producers must buy additional shares, or allowances, on the open market that originate with the EPA. The theory, Mappes explained, is that producers will find ways to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions if they have to pay too much to produce more emissions.
Mappes said the ELS raised $425 to buy the emissions allowance through fund-raising events during the year, mostly bake sales. The $400 they spent for one ton of emissions pales against the purchase made by the largest buyer in this year's auction, Morgan Stanley Capital Group, which spent $10 million to purchase more than 39 million tons.
"Every little bit helps keep the air cleaner," said Mappes.