The 'Clear Skies' Battle Heats Up

The congressional fight over the Bush administration's clean air plan has turned into a political knock-down, drag-out at several levels.

Ten state attorneys general are publicly opposing it. Environmental activists and labor unions are at odds over the measure, illustrating the classic split over jobs versus the environment. State and local air-pollution control officials and agencies have weighed in, prompting the chairman of the Senate environment committee to question their motives and investigate their possible connection to activists.

Two prominent Republican governors – George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California – have urged Washington to make sure that states be allowed "to have stronger pollution controls than those set for the nation as a whole," as is the case under current law. Their recent letter to congressional leaders was polite, but it made an important point: That heavily populated areas like New York City and Los Angeles may need stronger laws than those favored by the Bush administration and polluting industries.

Meanwhile, speakers at the annual meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science this week complained that the administration "has distanced itself from scientific information" on such issues as environmental protection.

President Bush and his supporters in Congress say the "Clear Skies" legislation will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury 70 percent below current levels by 2018, with "major reductions" in the next five years. What's more, they say, a new approach is needed, since attempts to regulate such emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act typically have been tied up in legal battles.

The model here is the "cap and trade" method of reducing pollution, successfully, used for acid rain that's been relatively litigation-free. "The Clear Skies legislation will clean up the air by reducing utility emissions faster, more cheaply, and more efficiently than the Clean Air Act," says James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "Anyone who doubts this either does not understand the legislation or has not paid attention to the endless litigation over the last 15 years."

Republican-turned-independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, one of the authors of major Clean Air Act amendments 15 years ago, takes a decidedly different view.

The president's proposal "is rife with loopholes for polluters and litigation," says Mr. Jeffords, the senior minority member of the Senate committee. It "rewrites major portions of the Clean Air Act to delay attainment of the health-based standards – leaving millions of Americans to breathe dirty air longer."

Meanwhile, a long list of outside interests has been weighing in as well.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (whose members install and maintain much of the pollution-control equipment in the U.S.) favors Bush's Clear Skies Act. "It requires $52 billion in investment to meet air-quality standards, a significant portion of which will be paid in wages to boilermakers and other union craftsman," says union lobbyist Abraham Breehey.

State and local pollution-control officials point out that great gains have been made under current law since its initial passage 35 years ago: Emissions have been cut by 50 percent at the same time the nation's gross domestic product was increasing 176 percent and population grew by 39 percent. That means the cost of doing business in this country, as measured by pollution, has dropped considerably.

At the same time, these officials point out, power plants remain a major problem – more so under "Clear Skies" than under existing law. "We have tremendous concerns with the fact that this proposal strips away many of our most essential Clean Air Act tools and authorities," said John Paul, supervisor of a six-county regional air pollution control agency centered in Dayton, Ohio.

"Given the serious deficiencies of this legislative proposal, we believe that continued implementation of the Clean Air Act will provide far greater, and more certain and timelier, protection of public health and the environment," Mr. Paul told a recent Senate hearing, speaking on behalf of agencies overseeing pollution-control efforts at the state, territorial, and municipal levels.

Shortly after Paul's testimony, Sen. Inhofe directed the organizations to submit financial and tax records. Organization officials and Senate Democrats say this is a blatant attempt to intimidate witnesses critical of the administration measure.

Earlier this month, the attorneys general of 10 states (New York, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont) wrote to Sen. Jeffords that passage of the Clear Skies measure "would mark the first time in the history of the Clean Air Act that Congress had weakened the statute, thereby consigning the country to dirtier air and increased levels of acid rain and disease."

Among other things, they complained that the proposal exempts many older power plants from installing modern pollution controls as part of any substantial upgrade. The measure also fails to deal with carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas thought to cause global warming.

While such complaints may be legitimate and worthy of debate, it did not go without notice that all 10 attorneys general signing the letter are Democrats.

At the moment, the Senate committee is deadlocked on the Clear Skies bill. Another vote has been scheduled for early next week.

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