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Clear Skies Initiative Clouds the Issue

The Clear Skies Initiative was meant to reduce harmful emissions, but its fuzzy math actually does more damage to the environment than good.
 
 
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During a visit to the Detroit Edison coal-burning power plant in Detroit on Sept. 15, President Bush tried to make it sound like his new energy policies would be the savior of both the economy and the environment.

But as he has done with the Healthy Forests Initiative and the No Child Left Behind Act, critics recognize his classic doublespeak for what it is, and point out that the proposed Clear Skies Initiative and the recently enacted changes to the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act really represent a serious threat to air quality and public health.

The Detroit Edison plant in the town of Monroe, about 20 miles from Detroit, is one of the three largest coal-burning power plants in the country. It is also one of the antiquated but still in-use plants that are known as the country's worst polluters. Built before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, these plants were grand-fathered in and have never had to meet the emissions standards laid out in the act. The thinking at the time was that they wouldn't be operating much longer. But here it is 26 years later, and plants like this are still chugging along all over the country.

"Nobody thought they'd last this long, but they're still here," said Ken Rosenman, a physician and professor of medicine at Michigan State University who has studied the effects of the Detroit Edison plant.

The pollution these plants create has been linked in numerous studies to increased premature deaths and cases of asthma and cancer. Studies using methods approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have blamed the Detroit Edison plant for 293 premature deaths and 5,740 asthma attacks per year, according to the group Clear the Air. Likewise two old coal-burning plants in Chicago, the Fisk and Crawford plants run by the company Midwest Generation and producing electricity for Com-Ed, were held responsible for 41 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks in a 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Numerous out-dated plants in other states cause similar problems.

The Clean Air Act does include a provision, New Source Review, which stipulates that when major repairs or expansions are made to the plants, they must upgrade their equipment to meet modern emission controls. Power plants have long been trying to find loopholes in this provision, however, often passing major repairs and expansions off as standard maintenance. But then the Bush administration made changes which took effect in late August essentially gutting New Source Review and letting these antiquated power plants off the hook for eternity.

"It makes sense to change the regulations," Bush told the crowd in Monroe. "The rules put up too many hurdles. And that hurt the working people. We trust the people in this plant to make the right decision."

Following a common Bush administration theme, he implied that regulating the industry would result in plant closures and job losses. Especially in an area like Detroit which has seen industry after industry close its doors, this message probably hit home with many people.

"When we talk about environmental policy in this Bush administration, we not only talk about clean air, we talk about jobs," he said.

Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air, said that based on Department of Energy and EPA data, a coalition called the Clean Air Task Force estimates that the new loopholes in New Source Review will mean at least 20,000 additional premature deaths per year and at least 12,000 additional cases of chronic bronchitis around the country.

"The Administration is once again doing the bidding of the coal and energy industries, at the expense of public health and the environment," she said in a statement.

The rollbacks in the New Source Review came just as some utility companies were being ordered by the courts to get up to par.

"It's ironic that at the same time the EPA was winning cases against some of these companies, Bush is weakening the regulations," said Rosenman. "It's like an end run by the utility companies to get around having judges enforce the laws."

Power industry executives have often claimed that bringing old coal-burning plants up to Clean Air Act standards would be financially impossible and result in plant closings. But clean air proponents say the technology to do it is available and feasible to implement, if the companies settle for just a little less profit.

"Midwest Generation paid a lot of money for these plants and they want to recoup it," said Brian Urbaszewski of the American Lung Association in Chicago, where he is involved in a campaign to force the Fisk and Crawford plants to clean up their acts. "The way to do that is to run them as cheaply as possible. The problem is, there is always a cost. Does the company pay the cost for cleaning up the plant, or does the public pay the cost in increased health costs, pain and suffering?"

The New Source Review roll-back in policy won't actually increase pollution, it will prevent improvements from being made which would have been mandated under the old policy. Besides power plants, it also applies to about 17,000 other industries including paper mills, steel mills and incinerators.

"It won't make [the plants] dirtier per se, because they are already spewing out lots of stuff," said Rosenman. "But it will increase the time before any clean up is done." The same will be true if Congress passes the proposed Clear Skies Initiative, which has been introduced but stalled largely because of public opposition. It is possible Congress will vote on it this fall, though opposition may continue to cause delay. There is bipartisan opposition to the initiative in Congress, from those who want stronger legislation covering various pollutants, and over 1,200 environmental and community groups around the country have signed a letter opposing the initiative.

The administration has claimed that the Clear Skies Initiative would reduce emissions by 35 million tons more than the Clean Air Act by 2012. But they reached this figure through a sort of circular logic, using a "baseline" number in which it is assumed that under the Clean Air Act pollution will remain at current levels; basically they assume the Act won't be enforced at all over the next 10 years. Proponents of the Clean Air Act note that if it is enforced, industries would have to reduce their total emissions by 21 million tons more than Clear Skies will force them to do by 2012. By 2020, this differential would reach about 42 million tons. Among other things the Clean Air Act requires a much more stringent reduction in soot and smog pollution through the reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides over the next decade.

"I would feel much more comfortable with our current law [the Clean Air Act]," said Rosenman. "The Clear Skies Initiative gives years before anyone has to do anything. And 10 years later someone could come along and give them another break."

The Clear Skies Initiative was developed out of a proposal made by the EPA in August 2001 which would have reduced mercury, sulfur and nitrogen emissions almost in compliance with Clean Air Act standards. But thanks to lobbying from the power industry, the White House converted the EPA proposal into a much more industry-friendly program.

"The Bush administration is hoping that with the Clear Skies, it will look like there are reductions when really it's just a gift to his corporate supporters and the industry," said Levengood.

She said that the Clean Air Act demands the Detroit Edison plant reduce its emissions of sulfur dioxide from its current level of over 100,000 tons per year to 10,000 tons by 2020, while Clear Skies would require no such reduction.

"Even with the flaws in the Clean Air Act, the way it stands we'd see a 90 percent reduction," she said. "We need to make sure the Clean Air Act is left intact to make sure we have the tools to enforce reductions. The biggest source of pollution is these grand-fathered coal-burning plants. If we leveled the playing field and made them all adhere to the same standards as brand new plants, we wouldn't have a problem."

Rosenman noted that with the Detroit Edison plant, much of the pollution will actually make its way to Canada because of prevailing wind currents. Meanwhile pollution from the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago is known to make its way across Lake Michigan and affect the air in Detroit. "It's always hard to make a link between air pollution and any one person's case of asthma, but we are seeing some pretty drastic pollution here," said Megan Owens, field director of PIRGIM, the Public Interest Research Group In Michigan. "The laws that the nation has relied on for the last 30 years to protect our air, water and public land are being undercut without much regard for what the public actually wants. And unfortunately the White House is very good at coming up with names like Clear Skies which obscure the truth. The more we're able to get the truth out, the stronger chance we'll have of fighting them."

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.