United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain

The United States and Canada took an important cooperative step when the two nations issued a joint report stating that acid rain constitutes a serious environmental and transboundary problem for both countries.

Summary of Event

The 1986 Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain represented part of ongoing Canadian and U.S. bilateral efforts to address environmental issues that directly affect both countries. The United States and Canada share more than five thousand miles of border that is crossed by some 150 lakes and rivers. The border includes the longest water boundary in the world, five great watersheds, and joint possession of the world’s largest freshwater system, the Great Lakes. This great mass of shared land, water, and air resources has led to the unprecedented bilateral environmental relationship between the United States and Canada. Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain (Lewis and Davis)
Acid rain
Environmental policy, international
Air pollution;acid rain
[kw]United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain (Jan., 1986)
[kw]Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain, United States and (Jan., 1986)
[kw]Report on Acid Rain, United States and Canada Issue a Joint (Jan., 1986)
[kw]Acid Rain, United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on (Jan., 1986)
[kw]Rain, United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid (Jan., 1986)
Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain (Lewis and Davis)
Acid rain
Environmental policy, international
Air pollution;acid rain
[g]North America;Jan., 1986: United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain[05960]
[g]United States;Jan., 1986: United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain[05960]
[g]Canada;Jan., 1986: United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain[05960]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan., 1986: United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain[05960]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan., 1986: United States and Canada Issue a Joint Report on Acid Rain[05960]
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy
Mulroney, Brian
Davis, William
Lewis, Andrew

Since the early 1900’s, Canada and the United States have signed many treaties, agreements, and memoranda of intent regarding their shared borders, including the Boundary Waters Treaty Boundary Waters Treaty (1909) of 1909 and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements of 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972) and 1978. These agreements established a framework within which the two countries could deal with water pollution. The 1970’s, however, brought to light another environmental concern that would dominate U.S.-Canadian environmental relations throughout the 1980’s: transboundary pollution in the form of acid deposition (acid rain).

Acid rain occurs when sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted by such sources as automobiles and coal-fired plants are transported into the atmosphere and returned to earth as acid compounds. This acid deposition has been linked to serious environmental damage as well as to possible adverse health effects.

Canada was first to recognize the significance of the transboundary acid rain problem. In 1977, the Canadian Environmental Ministry described acid rain as an environmental time bomb and noted that the problem would require a bilateral solution. A year later, the United States acted. In 1978, a small group of U.S. congressional representatives whose states bordered on Canada called for negotiations with Canada on the acid rain issue. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling on the president to negotiate an agreement with Canada aimed at preserving the quality of air above both nations.

These actions prompted bilateral negotiations to begin in July, 1979. While these negotiations were highlighted by numerous high-profile meetings between the U.S. president and the Canadian prime minister, they resulted in few major agreements. One agreement that was reached was the Memorandum of Intent, signed on August 5, 1980. Among other things, the memorandum established a Canada-U.S. coordinating committee, an exchange of scientific information, and a promise to promote vigorous enforcement of existing laws and regulations to limit the emissions responsible for transboundary air pollution. Based on this agreement, the United States and Canada consented to develop a bilateral agreement and to enforce existing air-pollution legislation vigorously. Over the next five years, the Canadians continued to express concern over the pace of progress. They accused President Ronald Reagan’s administration of refusing to move forward on the acid rain issue.

In March, 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Reagan met in Quebec City to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues, including defense, trade, and the environment. This summit was viewed as a unique opportunity to reinforce ties between the two countries. At that meeting, both leaders recognized acid rain as a serious concern affecting bilateral relations.

Noting the long history of environmental cooperation between the two countries, the two leaders expressed their determination to address current U.S.-Canadian environmental issues, including acid rain, in the same spirit of responsibility and cooperation. Consequently, each agreed to appoint a personal special envoy to examine the acid rain issue. The envoys were to report their findings before the leaders’ next meeting, which was scheduled for the spring of 1986. These special appointments acknowledged the need for both countries to work together to resolve a shared problem.

Reagan appointed Andrew Lewis, former U.S. secretary of transportation, to be the American special envoy. Mulroney appointed William Davis, former premier of Ontario, as the Canadian envoy. The envoys were given the responsibility of assessing the international environmental problems associated with transboundary air pollution and were asked to recommend actions that would help solve the problems. Davis and Lewis were assigned four specific tasks: They were to pursue consultation on laws and regulations related to pollutants thought to be linked to acid rain; they were to facilitate cooperation in research efforts, especially as it applied to clean-fuel technology and smelter controls; they were to pursue means to increase exchange of relevant scientific information; and they were to identify efforts to improve the U.S. and Canadian environments.

In January, 1986, the special envoys released their findings in a report titled Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain. The report emphasized two major findings. The first was that acid rain constituted a serious environmental problem in both the United States and Canada. It was agreed that acidic emissions transported through the atmosphere were contributing to the acidification of sensitive areas in both countries and that the potential for long-term socioeconomic costs was high. The second major finding was that acid rain was a serious transboundary problem. It was agreed that air pollutants emitted by sources in both countries were crossing their mutual border, thus causing a diplomatic problem as well as an environmental one. These findings were accompanied by a major caveat: Only a limited number of potential avenues existed for achieving major reductions in acidic air emissions, and they all carried high socioeconomic costs. Thus the envoys’ final conclusion was that acid rain constituted not only an environmental and technical problem but also a problem that had far-reaching socioeconomic and political implications.


The cornerstone of the U.S.-Canadian bilateral environmental relationship was established by article 4 of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, wherein both countries agreed not to pollute boundary waters to the injury of health or property in the other country. The spirit of this agreement has been enhanced over the years through both bilateral and international efforts and agreements. One of these agreements was the 1980 Memorandum of Intent, in which both governments officially recognized the seriousness of the acid rain problem and committed themselves to adopting a bilateral air-quality agreement in a timely fashion.

The 1986 Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain, which specifically addressed the transport of acid rain across the U.S.-Canadian border, was a continuation of the attempt to formulate a bilateral agreement on transboundary air pollution. This effort culminated in the signing of the 1991 Air Quality Accord Air Quality Accord (1991) between the United States and Canada.

The envoys’ report presented an overview of U.S.-Canada environmental relations as a whole, and it also provided independent sections on the U.S. and Canadian perspectives, including each country’s views on the science involved—that is, on the perceived causes and effects of acid rain—and each country’s preferred response to the problem. The heart of the report, however, lay in its recommendations. The envoys recommended action in three major areas: innovative control technologies, cooperative activities, and research.

Under the heading of innovative control technologies, the envoys advised that the U.S. government should implement a five-year pollution-control technology demonstration program, the cost of which would be five billion dollars. It was recommended that special consideration be given to technologies that could be applied to facilities currently dependent on the use of high-sulfur coal. It was noted that Canada had already taken a similar approach with respect to improving smelter efficiency and reducing pollution. (In Canada, smelters constituted the major industrial source of acidic emissions.) With this in mind, the envoys also recommended that the results of the Canadian technology development program be shared with the United States.

Under the heading of cooperative activities, the envoys recommended that both the United States and Canada review their existing air-pollution programs and legislation to identify opportunities for addressing environmental concerns related to transboundary air pollution. They further suggested that agencies considering changes to laws or regulations that might alter the flow of transboundary pollutants should give timely notice of their intent to agencies of the other country through diplomatic channels. In the spirit of bilateral consultation, the envoys also recommended that acid rain should remain high on the agenda of meetings between the U.S. president and the Canadian prime minister, and that both should be prepared to intercede personally in order to ensure progress.

Finally, the envoys’ report stated that scientific information would provide the basis for determining the most effective actions with which to address the damage caused by long-range transboundary pollutants. It was recommended that an adequate acid deposition database be developed, including standardized and accurate measurements of dry deposition. Special attention was to be focused on biological changes in both rates and types of pollutants, with research accelerated to investigate the potential link between forest and tree decline as it pertained to acid rain. Further, the effects of acid rain on materials were to be given increased attention, as was the toxicity of heavy metals, especially as it applied to human health.

The release of the Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain was regarded as a significant event at the time. The president’s endorsement of the report marked the first time that Reagan had publicly acknowledged that acid rain was a serious environmental problem. Reagan’s endorsement also committed the United States to spending five billion dollars on the recommended pollution-control technology demonstration program and provided a choice opportunity for both the Canadians and members of the U.S. Congress to promote acid rain controls. Indeed, several new bills addressing the acid rain problem were immediately introduced in Congress following the report’s release.

At first glance, Reagan’s acceptance of the plan appeared to indicate a softening of his long-held opposition to acid rain controls. A Congressional Research Service study subsequently concluded, however, that Reagan’s program for fulfilling the commitment (the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Technology Program) Clean Coal Technology Program did not meet the requirement of the joint envoys’ recommendation.

When asked about Reagan’s endorsement of the report, the U.S. secretary of energy, John S. Herrington, Herrington, John S. stated that he did not think the administration was really advocating the spending of five billion dollars, given that no budget was forthcoming. Statements such as this and further testimony at congressional hearings by the administration’s top officials added weight to Canada’s argument that Reagan was not acting in good faith with respect to acid rain concerns.

Legislation addressing acid rain was not passed during Reagan’s term in office, and it was not until after George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy assumed the U.S. presidency that a bilateral agreement concerning the problem was finally signed in March, 1991. Nevertheless, the special envoys’ 1986 report was an important part of the series of events that led to the signing of the 1991 agreement between the United States and Canada. Joint Report of the Special Envoys on Acid Rain (Lewis and Davis)
Acid rain
Environmental policy, international
Air pollution;acid rain

Further Reading

  • Alm, Leslie R. Crossing Borders, Crossing Boundaries: The Role of Scientists in the U.S. Acid Rain Debate. New York: Praeger, 2000. Useful resource for those who seek to understand how science affects public policy and how these two disparate worlds interact. Includes in-depth interviews with scientists.
  • Carroll, John E. Acid Rain: An Issue in Canadian-American Relations. Washington, D.C.: National Planning Association, 1982. Describes the acid rain issue as a bilateral problem encompassed in a series of both political and geographic imbalances between Canada and the United States.
  • _______. Environmental Diplomacy: An Examination and a Prospective of Canadian-U.S. Transboundary Environmental Relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Outstanding comprehensive examination of Canada-U.S. bilateral environmental policy disputes. Provides detailed analyses of many transboundary problems, including acid rain.
  • Ellerman, A. Denny, et al. Markets for Clean Air: The U.S. Acid Rain Program. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Presents the largely positive results of a comprehensive evaluation of the first three years of the U.S. Acid Rain Program.
  • Gould, Roy. Going Sour: Science and Politics of Acid Rain. Cambridge, Mass.: Birkhauser, 1985. Presents an in-depth account of the science of acid rain and gives an insider’s view of the politics of addressing the problem of acid rain.
  • Kahan, Archie. Acid Rain: Reign of Controversy. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1986. Provides a straightforward look at the dimensions of the acid rain problem. Includes a description of the chemistry involved in acid rain aimed at lay readers and examines the social implications of defining a policy to deal with the problem.
  • Regens, James L., and Robert W. Rycroft. The Acid Rain Controversy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. Frames the economic and political context (including the U.S.-Canada linkage) for making decisions about an acid rain control policy. Offers insights about the underlying dynamics of environmental policy-making practices.
  • Schmandt, Jurgen, Judith Clarkson, and Hilliard Roderick. Acid Rain and Friendly Neighbors: The Policy Dispute Between Canada and the United States. Rev. ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. Presents the results of a policy research project on U.S.-Canada relations as they pertain to the issue of acid rain. Emphasizes the extent of agreement and disagreement between the two countries, the domestic policy developments in each country, and the joint measures the two countries have taken.
  • Yanarella, Ernest J., and Randal H. Ihara, eds. The Acid Rain Debate: Scientific, Economic, and Political Dimensions. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Collection of essays addresses all aspects of the acid rain debate. Focuses on the political and legal aspects of the problem and offers a unique perspective on the international dimensions of acid rain control.

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