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Clean-air revamp hits wall in Senate

Shankar Vedantam Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Bush’s bid to rewrite the nation’s air pollution laws ground to a halt in Congress Wednesday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the bill would weaken central pillars of environmental protection.

The setback dealt a body blow to the administration’s highly touted plan and handed a victory to environmental groups that viewed the “Clear Skies” bill as rolling back safeguards at the behest of industry interests.

The Environmental Protection Agency will issue new rules today and next week to control the same pollutants targeted by the Bush initiative, but these rules will not change provisions in the 1990 Clean Air Act that would have been revised by “Clear Skies.”

Senate Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing effective and common-sense legislation because they did not want to give Bush an important environmental victory.

Democrats, joined by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said negotiations had been conducted in bad faith, that the initiative’s pollution control targets were set too low, and that certain loopholes in the bill were irresponsible.

The 9-9 vote in the Senate committee followed weeks of postponements and months of anticipation, alternately marked by low-ball tactics and high drama. While neither side said the bill was doomed, the groups remained far apart on many issues, and future negotiations appeared to be jeopardized by mistrust and radical differences of opinion.

“This bill has been killed by the environmental extremists who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making a political statement about carbon dioxide than they do about reducing air pollution,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman.

Jeffords retorted: “This legislation denies plain scientific evidence of human health damage from toxic air pollution and of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions.”

A central disagreement was whether the bill, originally aimed at reducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury pollution, should also address global warming and carbon dioxide emissions. The issue cost the Republican majority Chafee’s crucial vote, said Sen George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

“Chafee thinks this is the biggest problem facing the world, and the chairman (Inhofe) has a sign in his office saying this is a hoax,” said Voinovich, as he threw up his hands today.

With other Senate business piling up, additional analysis demanded by Democrats likely to take several months to assemble and election year constraints looming in 2006, Voinovich and Inhofe indicated that the odds were long that Clear Skies would return to the agenda anytime soon.

“There is a limited window here,” Voinovich said.

In a speech in Ohio Wednesday, Bush reiterated his support for the Clear Skies bill, saying that the EPA rules were a poor substitute for effective legislation.

Democrats said they would continue to press for changes to Clear Skies, and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., suggested an eventual compromise might come about with less restrictive controls on carbon. One possibility would involve setting voluntary caps on carbon emissions that would harden into a mandatory cap if industry failed to achieve the voluntary targets, he said.

In a briefing a month ago, James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said flatly: “What will never fly is a mandatory cap on carbon.”

Both Republicans and Democrats marshaled a wide array of supporters for their respective positions, cited the importance of addressing air pollution through bipartisan legislation, and accused the other side of intransigence.

Connaughton and several Republicans said that overly ambitious measures would raise the price of power, hitting the elderly hard, and would cause polluting industries to simply leave American shores for countries with less demanding standards. Voinovich and Inhofe cited support from some unions and seniors’ organizations, along with the vast majority of industry groups.

Democrats marshaled opposition from environmental groups, the attorneys general of 14 states and two bipartisan groups of local environmental officials: the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. William Becker, a spokesman for those organizations, said that Inhofe had unfairly targeted the groups for a financial inquiry after they announced their opposition.

Critics of the Clear Skies plan said it weakened provisions in existing law that call for companies to install emissions controls in old power plants when those facilities are being upgraded, that allow states to go after cross-border pollution from power plants in neighboring states, and that call for certain specific protections for national parks.

EPA is scheduled to issue a rule next week to control mercury pollution – a controversial measure likely to be taken straight to court by environmental groups. Advocates are more positive about a second EPA rule, called the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which will be announced today to control sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. While they feel it doesn’t go far enough fast enough, environmentalists said the CAIR rule was superior to Bush’s legislative initiative.

“Clear Skies was a half step forward and two steps backward,” said Conrad Schneider, a spokesman for the environmental coalition, Clear the Air. “The CAIR rule is just a half step forward.”

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