WASHINGTON – The Bush administration embarked Wednesday on a renewed effort to replace large sections of the Clean Air Act with the president’s more flexible and industry-friendly Clear Skies policies.
The plan would make sweeping changes in the way the government regulates air pollution. Among them, it would relax controls on power plants and other pollution sources and allow their owners to buy or trade the rights to higher authorized emission levels as long as a cap was maintained on overall emissions nationwide.
White House attempts to get a Clear Skies package through Congress in 2002 and 2003 ultimately failed, compelling the administration to attempt a few changes through the regulatory process. But it had only limited success.
With the November elections expanding Republican majorities in the Senate and House, the administration felt emboldened to renew its attempt to pass the legislation and quickly move on the issue.
Earlier this week, the full package was reintroduced by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and rushed to a required preliminary subcommittee hearing Wednesday with the idea that the full committee would vote on it by Feb. 14.
“The Clear Skies bill is the most aggressive presidential initiative in history to reduce power plant pollution and provide cleaner air across the country,” Inhofe said. “The bill reduces emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and, for the first time, mercury from power plants by 70 percent by 2018.”
The measure would employ a practice currently in use for facilities that contribute to acid rain, allowing power plant operators and other companies to trade or buy the rights to higher levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions as long as the cumulative emission totals do not exceed preset national caps.
Deadlines would be imposed far in advance to ensure compliance with the caps. The mercury provision, however, would apply only to emissions from coal-fired plants.
As in recent years, environmental groups immediately attacked the proposals, saying they would lead to more, not less pollution.
Environmentalists contend that the Bush administration proposal relies too heavily on voluntary polluter cooperation to succeed; removes the safety net of strict, across-the-board limits that have controlled emissions for years; and delays emission reduction of dangerous pollutants until 2025 or beyond.
“It is no secret that the administration wants to rewrite air pollution protections to favor power companies and other industrial polluters,” Nat Mund, senior Washington representative of the Sierra Club, said before the subcommittee meeting.
“The Bush administration’s proposed legislation has the dubious distinction of allowing two to three times more soot, smog and mercury pollution than strong enforcement of current protections, and for as much as a decade longer. It leaves the fate of millions of Americans, who are waiting for relief from existing air pollution problems, entirely in the hands of a risky pollution trading scheme.”
Clear the Air, a coalition representing about 40 clean air groups throughout the country, asserted in a report Wednesday that, despite the Bush administration’s assurances, 54 percent of the dirtiest power plants in the country increased their pollution since 1995.
“When it comes to power plant pollution, many of the nation’s dirtiest power plants just keep getting dirtier,” said Emily Figdor, a policy analyst for Clear the Air.
“We know how to solve the air pollution problem, but the Bush administration’s air pollution bill will set us back decades.”
Bruce Buckheit, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air enforcement division, said vigorous enforcement of existing laws and regulations governing power plants could reduce the pollution they currently spew into the air every year from 11 million tons to 1 million tons.
But Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, chairman of the clean air subcommittee, said the Bush plan “responsibly harmonizes our energy and environmental policies to protect both the environment and jobs. It reduces emissions by historic levels and helps ensure continued access to the reliable, low-cost electricity that is so critical to job creation and our country’s global competitiveness.”