President Reagan on Wednesday all but rejected Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's program to reduce the acid rain that the Canadian leader says is not only destroying the North American environment but damaging the economies of both nations.
In what Canadian officials said was a last-gasp effort to reach an agreement before Reagan leaves office, Mulroney presented the elements of a draft accord that sets out a timetable by which the emissions of sulfides and nitrogen oxides and other pollutants would be reduced by specific amounts.
'Accord Is Inevitable'
"An accord is inevitable," Mulroney was quoted by Canadian officials as telling the President during a private, 30-minute White House meeting. "Therefore, it is not a question of whether but of when."
But officials from both governments agreed that Mulroney's program has almost no chance of being accepted.
"The President gave the predictable American view," a Canadian official said resignedly.
Reagan told Mulroney, this official said, that the United States has already reduced emissions and is making progress toward finding a way to burn coal--the source of much acid rain--more cleanly. The President also reportedly insisted that there is not sufficient scientific evidence linking acid rain to the alleged environmental damage.
"So unless there is a 180-degree change, we have no expectation that a door will open and something of importance will transpire," another Canadian official said.
A senior American official said that while Reagan agreed to take another look at the Canadian position, "we have not bridged the gap on different views" on acid rain.
"We have difficulty finding a basis for moving forward. . . ," the official said. "There will be no action on acid rain while President Reagan is in office."
The question of acid rain--the single greatest irritant in U.S.-Canadian relations--has resulted in unprecedented personal criticism by Mulroney, who otherwise claims to be Reagan's best and most consistent international friend and supporter.
But increasing domestic political pressure, coupled with growing evidence that airborne pollutants from U.S. factories are major causes in the ecological deaths of thousands of lakes, waterways and forests in Canada, prompted Mulroney as recently as last Friday to declare the American position "wholly unacceptable."
Although officials said the prime minister avoided "strident" statements in his meeting with Reagan, he stuck by a statement he made to American reporters last week that the United States is like a neighbor who is "dumping garbage in my back yard."
The basic Canadian position is that at least half of the sulfides and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain originate in the United States and that acid rain has resulted in the death of aquatic life in 15,000 lakes and serious damage to 150,000 more.
Met in Ottawa Last Year
On the basis of what he thought was a Reagan commitment made last year when the two met in Ottawa to sign an accord that would set out a timetable with specific targets for reduction of emissions, Mulroney last January proposed a step-by-step program that would reduce American emissions by half by 1994. The United States rejected that program on grounds that more study was necessary to establish a link between acid rain and the claimed damage.
Reagan repeated that position Wednesday in his welcoming remarks to Mulroney, who is in Washington for a yearly meeting with the President, saying that "more will be done as science points the way."
After the rebuff by Reagan, Mulroney took his case to Capitol Hill, where he told a joint session of Congress that while "the cost of reducing acid rain is substantial . . . the cost of inaction is greater still."
The damage is not only to Canada, he added, and it is not limited to the environment. "It is a rapidly escalating ecological tragedy in this country as well. Just imagine the damage to tourism and recreation, to timber stands and fishing streams."
In other matters, Mulroney asked for and got assurances from Reagan that the White House will push for quick congressional approval of a U.S.-Canadian free-trade agreement signed last year. And he urged Congress not to let the free-trade agreement be sacrificed in the current dispute with the Reagan Administration over the omnibus trade bill that the Senate sent to Reagan on Wednesday. The President is expected to veto that legislation.