Frank O'Donnell

EPA Spews Auto Industry Propaganda

The recent holiday season is a reminder that among the most vile of creatures is the religious hypocrite on the taxpayer dole.

There are no doubt numerous examples that could be cited within the Bush administration, but top of mind this week would be Steve Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ignoring all legal and technical evidence -- and the advice of his career experts -- Johnson sided with the car industry and rejected the request of California to enforce the state's landmark greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. (No fewer than 19 other states have already adopted these standards or are considering them, representing about half the U.S. population.) In fact, Johnson took action that his own legal team said was probably illegal.

To top things off, when it appeared that the story was about to leak (thanks to excellent reporting by The Washington Post), Johnson abruptly called an evening news conference by telephone to put his "spin" on the situation.

In the process, Johnson lied through his teeth to the media. Among other lies, Johnson claimed approving California's request would create a "confusing patchwork of state rules" (No, this is just auto industry propaganda. There would only be one standard that other states could adopt. So many had either done so or contemplating adoption, that it could have become a de facto national standard.). Johnson claimed that the standard would save less gasoline than the new fuel economy standards in the energy bill. (Another lie. The car companies opposed the California standards because they would require them to do more.) And the EPA chief gushed over his "world-class professional staff" at the same time that he froze them out of the decision-making process.

Instead, Johnson did what the White House wanted him to do, which was give a giant Christmas gift to the car industry, which had lobbied various White House agencies and even Vice President Cheney in an effort to kill the California request.

This compulsion to lie might be considered normal in a standard politician, but Johnson has postured that he is a devoutly religious man -- in fact, he even taped a promotional spot for an evangelical proselytizing organization known as Christian Embassy.

In that video tape, Johnson states that "I can't imagine doing this [job] without the Lord."

He also claims he meets with the group at his office early in the morning to "have a Bible study." (It's worth noting that Johnson claimed he was "too busy" to meet with Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before announcing the California decision.)

Ultimately, Johnson will be exposed for his mendacity in this matter. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is demanding all the internal documents and other relevant material -- and has warned EPA to "preserve all documents" related to the issue. And California and 15 other states are suing and likely will eventually win in court.

But it's worth pointing out that it's not the first time this EPA head has blatantly lied about a critical decision that helped polluting industry. In order to save industry money, last year Johnson set weak national standards for airborne soot -- a decision that will lead to many thousands of premature deaths. Even the mild-mannered head of EPA's science advisory board noted Johnson was "a little disingenuous" in claiming there was scientific doubt about what to do.

And soon Johnson will make yet another decision that could either save -- or take -- lives, since he is under a court order to announce a decision by March on new national air quality standards for ozone, or smog.

Last year, Johnson proposed a slight tightening of the standard -- though not as tight as unanimously recommended by his science advisers -- because scientific evidence is overwhelming that the current standards don't adequately protect the health of kids with asthma and many millions of other Americans.

But with a final decision looming, polluting industries have ramped up their lobbying activities. Prompted by the National Association of Manufacturers, 11 governors wrote to the EPA head, urging him to make no change in the current standards.

The lobbying blitz so alarmed Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., head of the Senate clean air subcommittee, that he sent Johnson a handwritten note urging him not to cave under political pressure.

Maybe Carper should have sent a Bible along.

Green Legislative Breakthrough?

A young man came to my door the other day, seeking money for the Democratic National Committee. "We need to elect Democrats next year," said the young man, "to work on issues like Iraq and global warming."

Implicit in this pitch, similar to one on the DNC website was the notion that the current Congress (and President) will not take on the global warming issue, and that it could be a defining issue in the next election.

But there have been some interesting developments in the past few weeks that leave open hope that the current Congress could actually take on the global warming issue directly and in a bipartisan way.

Consider, for example, the global warming plan unveiled earlier this month by Senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va. Their draft strategy, culling ideas from other proposals, would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2050 through a cap-and-trade system.

This plan does have some real warts. Initially more than half the initial credits would be given free to coal burning power companies and other big polluters based on past pollution levels -- raising the prospect of only slightly smaller windfall profits than a rival plan advanced by Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

Their overall target probably would also fall short of the mark needed to stabilize the climate. Even so, as my friends with Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out, the Lieberman-Warner initiative is "a big step forward" in the global warming debate and—with appropriate improvements—could be the basis for a bill that could clear the Senate Environment and Works Committee and head to the Senate floor this fall.

The plan may have gotten an additional boost from an Environmental Protection Agency analysis of an earlier global warming plan drafted by Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The analysis found that the economy would continue to grow despite new limits on greenhouse gas emissions, undermining arguments of cleanup opponents such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Across the Capitol, advocates for climate action should take heart from a energy bill vote in favor of requiring that power companies increase the amount of electricity they produce from renewable energy sources, a favorable vote despite opposition from big global-warming polluters like Duke Energy.

A renewable energy requirement alone would be a positive step on global warming—though it faces a real challenge in upcoming conference negotiations with the Senate. But it also suggests that House could support a strong overall plan to reduce global warming emissions.

But, wait—isn't President Bush going to oppose anything meaningful on global warming? After all, he has threatened to veto the less significant energy package unless his oil industry cronies get a better deal.

Perhaps. But he also could be influenced by one of the less-publicized developments of recent weeks—a call to action by the Business Roundtable, the CEOs of America's biggest companies (its energy task force is headed by Michael Morris, President and CEO of America's biggest global warmer—American Electric Power), a group usually somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan on environmental policy.

Though the Roundtable didn't endorse specific legislation, it did call for "collective actions" to reduce emissions.

These folks, who pull the puppet strings of so many D.C. pols, may have been sending President Bush a message: Consider signing global warming legislation if it makes its way to your desk.

The President has already scheduled a climate change summit in Washington in late September. Now that Karl Rove is packing his bags, would the President consider forging a legacy other than being the guy who created the Iraq mess?

Dems Who Are Selling Out on the Environment

An ingenious Democratic political strategist might have concocted the following scenario:

Recent polls show not only heightened public concern over global warming, but much more confidence that congressional Democrats would do a better job on this than President Bush.

So global warming could be used as a wedge issue going into the next elections. Democrats should take action that would capture the moral high ground and accentuate the differences. Try to pass something tough, and force the President to threaten a veto or get polluter-friendly Republicans such as Jim Inhofe to filibuster.

But key House Democrats have exploded that fantasy amid a festival of special-interest pandering. Indeed, they seem to be trying to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot by promoting parochial concerns over those of country and party. Meanwhile Republican leaders are laughing their heads off at internecine Democrat warfare. (Clean Air Watch, for the record, is nonpartisan.)

Consider, for example,legislation drafted by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Buried within the fine print of the draft are nefarious provisions that not only would overturn the recent Supreme Court decision, which verified that the U.S. EPA does indeed have authority to limit global warming emissions from motor vehicles, but would take away the right of states like California to limit them as well.

Boucher is a genial and usually thoughtful lawmaker who has represented a generally conservative southwestern Virginia district for a quarter-century. He is perhaps best known for his leadership on Internet-related legislation (he originated the House Internet Caucus) and for being a stalwart pro-choice advocate.

But it came as a shock that Boucher would promoting a policy that could have been written in the boardroom of General Motors. Boucher has argued that his plan is needed to straighten out "confusion" prompted by the Supreme Court decision.

But in a scathing editorial, the Roanoke Times pointed out that Boucher's argument is "nonsense."

"California has long had stricter standards for different emissions than the federal government. The auto industry has not seemed confused by that," the paper noted.

Boucher's plan not only drew the ire of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- imagine her embarrassment if this blatant attack on California succeeded! -- but of numerous state attorneys general, state environmental officials and at least a dozen Democrats on his committee.

Though he hasn't said so publicly, Boucher appears to be taking the heat for the real author of this shameless, special-interest deal, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime car company advocate. Dingell, though a terrific force for environmental progress on many fronts through his dogged oversight, was nicknamed "Tailpipe Johnny" in the early 1980s by former Rep. Ed Madigan of Illinois because of his slavish devotion to alleged car-company interests.

Dingell tangled with Pelosi earlier this year when she first raised the idea of creating a special committee to deal with global warming. Eventually they compromised with a plan that did set up a select committee, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., but vested it principally with hortatory powers.

Dingell's response then was understandable, since it involved defense of all-important congressional turf. But it's harder to defend siding with the car companies against his House leader.

Dingell has defended his stance by asserting to public radio's "Living on Earth" program that "I wrote the clean air law," and thus was justified in trying to change it. Note to chairman Dingell: if former Senator Ed Muskie, the genuine author of the law, were still alive, he'd take you to the woodshed for that resume enhancement.

Promoting the interests of car and coal companies is sometimes described as appealing to "blue-collar" constituencies. But the antics of Dingell and friends conjures up the adage by brilliant blue-collar comic Ron White : "You can't fix stupid."

Green Momentum Hits Congress

The news barely made a ripple outside the Twin Cities.

But Senator Norm Coleman’s, R-Minn., recent decision to co-sponsor legislation aimed at reducing global warming pollution could be a harbinger of better things to come for progressive environmental policies.

It’s easy to become depressed by the latest daily dose of bad news—Congress caving on the war funding vote…the Supreme Court's disregard for women workers…three Republican presidential candidates who don’t believe in evolution !—but progressives ought to be encouraged by a quiet series of positive environmental developments in recent weeks.

These events all stem from the last election, or the prospect of the next one.

Coleman, for example, appears to be reacting to recent polls which show he could be vulnerable to challenges by Al Franken or other progressives.

(By contrast, the last time global warming was debated on the Senate floor, in 2005, Coleman missed one key vote and then voted with a reactionary majority to continue the failed policies of voluntary activity.)

Whether Coleman is acting now from belated enlightenment or from fear, his decision still helps build momentum for positive action on global warming.

In another unpublicized but very positive sign last week, a Democratic-led House Appropriations subcommittee voted to boost funding for such key environmental programs as cleaning up toxic diesel emissions and restoring Bush administration spending cuts for state and local clean air agencies. (Clean Air Watch was among the many groups that had urged both moves.)

The bill also would put lawmakers on record in favor, at least in concept, of mandatory cuts on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

And, in a surprise move prompted by Senate Democratic opposition, thwarted Bush nominee and industry pal William Wehrum resigned from his position as acting head of EPA’s air pollution program, effective tomorrow.

Only a few weeks ago, Wehrum declared he had “no plans to go anywhere,” but he apparently wore down under the continuing glare of congressional scrutiny.

Will this positive trend continue? Here are a couple of key things to look for when Congress returns from its Memorial Day break:

Energy legislation will come up for consideration by the full Senate, which will have several opportunities to begin pointing the nation in a more positive direction. One key vote is likely on a plan by Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, that would require electric utilities to create more electricity from renewable energy sources. Last week, a diverse coalition or almost 200 corporations, trade associations, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and environmentalists urged Bingaman to press ahead with his plan for a “renewable portfolio standard.”

Needless to say, the coal lobby will oppose this progressive idea. Coal will also be at the center of a possible second floor fight over a controversial plan to promote conversion of coal to liquid fuel.

Environmentalists will oppose government subsidies for this process (which isn’t used in the U.S. today because it costs so much—the Energy Department recently reported that one plant alone could cost $4.5 billion) because it could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and go directly against the general tide of dealing with global warming.

One other very important story to monitor in the coming weeks is the upcoming decision by the Bush administration on national health standards for smog, or ozone. The White House began reviewing an EPA proposal last week, and there is a theory afoot that the Democratic-led Congress has emboldened the EPA career professionals to press for tougher standards needed to protect kids with asthma and many millions of others harmed by smog.

EPA is under a court order to announce a proposed decision by June 20. Industry groups are mounting a quiet campaign to oppose tougher standards. Already a dozen governors and numerous state and local officials have joined an industry alliance in protesting the idea of better standards.

It would be nice if some in Congress (Norm Coleman, you could join progressive Democrats and Republicans on this one, too) were willing to send EPA a simple message: enforce the Clean Air Act, and make sure that clean-air standards actually protect the breathing public.

Dirty laundry in the Bush fuel spin cycle

We are bracing ourselves for some vigorous spinning in this afternoon's press conference by EPA Administrator Steve Johnson, Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, and NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason to tout "the use of alternative fuels and modernizing CAFÉ standards for cars."

It will be curious to see if they, as President Bush did last week, will try to argue that this is a Bush administration response to global warming and last week's Supreme Court decision.

Calling this plan an effective response to global warming is about as appropriate as naming Don Imus the Dean of Women at Rutgers.

(Please don't try to tell us you are doing a great job on global warming if you leave out the biggest source of emissions - coal burning at power companies.)

But there's more…

How Corporations Are Trying to Cheat Environmental Law

Let's start with a question perhaps suitable for a fifth-grade student: If you allow more pollution to spew out of an industry smokestack, does that mean the pollution increases? With apologies to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, President Bush is not smarter than a fifth grader! And neither are the politicos he has planted at the Environmental Protection Agency.

I say this after learning that the president's men intend to ignore one of last Tuesday's big environmental rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, a case about government authority to enforce pollution standards at coal-fired electric power plants.

The case here is awash in legal jargon, but the concept is pretty simple: Existing power plants don't have to use modern pollution controls unless the plant is refurbished in such a way that emissions "increase." If that happens, the plant is supposed to be cleaned up.

For decades, federal enforcers have interpreted "increase" to mean actual pollution, measured over the course of a year. But when the Clinton administration started aggressively enforcing the law, some polluter lawyers came up with an ingenious defense: they asserted that "increase" meant the rate of pollution per hour. Under this polluter-mouthpiece interpretation, a company could overhaul an aging plant so it could operate many more hours -- and emit much more overall pollution -- yet still be exempt from using modern pollution controls.

This legal legerdemain would basically destroy the chief government enforcement program against the nation's biggest polluters. And literally thousands of lives could be cut short by the resulting pollution. Astonishingly, a federal appeals court bought this pretty obvious sophistry, advanced by Duke Energy Corp.

The Bush administration, always happy to cut a break for those big power industry campaign contributors, cheerfully declined to appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. It also began preparing a rule change that would codify the bad court ruling.

Thankfully, my friends at Environmental Defense stepped in and not only convinced the Supreme Court to review the case, but brilliantly won a unanimous decision which clarified that an "increase" in pollution really is an increase.

Enter President Bush. When quizzed last Tuesday about the Supreme Court ruling on global warming (more on that in a second), the president declared he intended to follow "the new law of the land." But, at the same time, his henchmen at the EPA are moving forward with a new rule that would adopt the very get-free-out-jail-approach rejected by the Supreme Court.

If you are scratching your head at what looks like a blatant attempt to defy the high court (I suspect it's all part of a broader administration ploy to stall off pollution controls for its friends for as long as it can -- 21 months now and counting down) consider his response to last Monday's other big Supreme Court decision, on global warming.

Despite the best efforts of Bush-appointed justices, the high court ruled 5-4 that the EPA has legal authority under current law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

When quizzed about this last Tuesday, the president replied that "I care about the working people of the country" (sounding like a parody of the side-stepping, double-talking Texas governor in the musical "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas").

The president argued that he had already advanced a solution: his alternative fuel proposal in his most recent State of the Union Address. He conveniently forgot to note that an element of that plan, to convert coal into liquid fuel (a plan embraced by coal-state politicians of both parties, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill.), would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, that ugly word, increase, yet again.

If the president really wants to do something about global warming emissions quickly, here's a suggestion: California has adopted standards designed to reduce global warming emissions from cars and SUVs. And 13 other states have either adopted those standards or are about to.

But before California and the other states move forward, the U.S. EPA must check a box granting permission. Following the Supreme Court ruling, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reiterated his request for EPA approval. Even a first grader ought to be able to figure out the right answer to this one.

Polluters Are Working Overtime to Woo Congress

If the script were written in Hollywood, Al Gore’s bravura performance and triumphant return to Washington would be followed, in quick order, by:

  • Polluter lobbyists’ dropping efforts to block new global warming pollution limits,

  • Congress’ coming to its senses and racing to pass effective new greenhouse gas controls and

  • President Bush’s admitting the error of his ways and agreeing to sign a meaningful global warming bill. 

(Alternate, Frank Capra-esque ending, perhaps titled "Mr. Gore Really Returns to Washington" -- Gore would be elected president, and would sign the global warming law himself.) 

Unfortunately, there are some other would-be script writers in the nation’s capital -- and they are not going to win an Academy Award. 

Beneath the surface of the polar bear pageantry, polluter lobbyists are busy throwing up obstructions at every turn, dispensing both propaganda and big checks. And President Bush has been as stubborn in opposition to global warming limits as he has on his Iraq policy and his defense of his political hatchet men.

Let’s look at the good news first. Thanks in part to the former vice president’s proselytizing, there is perceptible momentum for action. Just this week, Representative Henry Waxman, D-Calif., introduced visionary legislation that would call for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. global warming emissions by mid-century. Waxman initially enlisted an impressive 127 cosponsors (though only two of them Republicans) for his Safe Climate Act. 

But to turn this vision into law, Waxman needs to secure quite a few more “yes” votes, and the polluters are working overtime to make sure they slow down the process.  

Take the coal-mining lobby, for instance: The day before Gore’s appearance before Congress, it scheduled a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Congressman Rick Boucher, D-Va., who happens to chair the House subcommittee in charge of global warming legislation.

Boucher is also a favorite of the nation’s biggest coal-burning power company, Ohio-based American Electric Power (its political action committee gave Boucher $10,000 in the last congressional cycle), which, coincidentally, testified to Boucher this week that it would oppose any legislation which doesn’t require action by China and India. 

In a similar hearing last week before Boucher and auto industry champion John Dingell, D-Mich., major auto makers made it clear they would strenuously oppose any efforts to require big improvements in fuel economy. (The car companies are simultaneously suing in Vermont to overturn state standards—modeled on those adopted by California -- that would set vehicle global warming standards.)

The car companies tried to throw the blame for global warming partly onto the oil companies. Not surprisingly, the oil companies are trying to blame someone else. This little Alphonse-and-Gaston routine recalls the old line by former Senator Russell Long: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”  

The political complexities have prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lower near-term expectations for comprehensive action on global warming in the House. A similar scene is playing out in the Senate, where Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., acknowledged to Roll Call this week that she has not yet been able to secure enough votes to report a strong global warming bill out of her Environment and Public Works Committee. 

It’s unfair to blame Boxer. One problem there is that committee Republicans are—so far—a stone wall of opposition or silence. Even Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a committee moderate who previously co-sponsored progressive legislation, has gone south. Last week he issued a startling press release praising the Bush administration’s environmental record.

Surely, it’s mere coincidence that administration ally American Electric Power gave moderate Lamar’s re-election campaign $1,000 last month. (For the record, Max Baucus, D-Mont., a likely swing vote on the Boxer panel, got an equal amount last month from AEP. So did Dingell. Boucher raked in another $2,500.)

Meanwhile, true to form, the White House continues to undermine attempts at international cooperation on global warming. Last weekend, the U.S. stood alone in blocking a consensus among industrialized and other nations for an international carbon-trading market. 

Perhaps more amazingly, the Bush administration has quietly stopped collecting comprehensive information on electric power plant operations -- information that could prove critical in designing an effective global warming strategy. 

So before we respond appropriately to Al Gore’s warnings, it may take another election to throw the proverbial bums out. But the list of bums is growing.

The Return Of Nazi Oil

Once upon a time, Hitler’s Nazis found themselves in a jam: how to fight a world war with meager oil reserves--especially after the debacle of the Russian Front and the loss of those former Soviet oil fields. The answer was to convert German coal into liquid fuel for the Luftwaffe and those Panzer tanks. (No, this plot line is not courtesy of Mel Brooks. In fact, General George Patton siphoned off some of this fuel from captured German vehicles and used it to race toward Germany in 1944.)

This expensive coal-to-liquid process was later used by South Africa to meet its energy needs during its isolation under apartheid.

Now what some people refer to as “Nazi fuel” is back—-thanks in part to high oil prices and lobbying by groups that stand to profit by its use in the United States. Former Republican congressman Bob Livingston was paid more than $200,000 last year to lobby for federal loan guarantees for the North American branch of the South Africa-based Sasol corporation, which is trying to peddle this process. 

Using this coal-to-liquid fuel is also an integral recommendation of a new report by the Southern States Energy Board, a collection of governors, state lawmakers and big polluters. They are trying to argue that their parochial interests-—including promoting more coal mining-—are synonymous with the national interest on energy issues. 

But the fact is their interests are not the same as the American public’s interests-—which is anxious for sustainable solutions to our dependence on oil.

In its relatively uncritical coverage, the New York Times described the SSEB report as “a crash program to meet fuel needs without imports… a strategy [that] could create more than one million new jobs, reduce the trade deficit by more than $600 billion, and end oil price shocks that hurt the economy.”

Whoa. Sounds good, but policymakers ought to be wary of being seduced by such hyperbole about groups like SSEB. 

It’s not that everything the energy board has recommended is bad. In fact, some of their ideas—-such as using more biomass and pumping carbon dioxide deep into oil fields to squeeze out more oil—-do have merit.

But frankly it would make better public policy if Congress paid less attention to such self-interested private groups like SSEB. The energy board’s “associate members” include a rogue’s gallery of some of the nation’s most odious polluters including American Electric Power, the Southern Company, and the TXU Corporation. Instead, lawmakers should listen to independent groups like NRDC and 20/20 Vision that are looking not just to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the bigger problem of our addiction to oil altogether. 

For example, the energy board report left out perhaps the most effective way to cut down on oil use-—better fuel economy standards. Then again, that wouldn’t bring in any cash for American Electric Power and the other heavy hitters. 

These choices do matter, because going down the wrong path opens the door for unintended consequences.

As my friends at NRDC have pointed out, unless the resulting carbon dioxide is stored underground, coal-based synthetic fuels can produce about double the greenhouse gas emissions of normal gasoline because it takes so much energy to convert the coal. (Pennsylvania is struggling to get one coal-to-liquid project off the ground. This one might have some merit-—if they can capture and store the carbon—-because it would eliminate some coal wastes that pollute the state’s waters.)

Or consider another recommendation of the energy board: to try extracting more oil from shale in such states as Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. 

Some of us are old enough to remember the hype over the very same idea when Jimmy Carter was president and we were concerned about unrest in the Middle East. In fact, Congress in that era created a Synthetic Fuels Corporation, backed by $20 billion in subsidies, aimed at squeezing oil from the shale. It’s generally been remembered as a classic boondoggle.

Repeating this boondoggle would, of course, be lucrative to some of the corporate members of the Southern States Energy Board, which are neither Southern nor states. But the Rand Corporation recently assessed some of the environmental impacts, which included more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, disturbed land and threats to water quality.

Just another reason to avoid the déjà vu, and look for real solutions to our excessive and wasteful use of energy.

Polluter-Friendly Energy

It seems fitting that an organization called The Annapolis Center--identified by the Wall Street Journal as a polluter front group--will give an award next week to Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton appears to be working diligently to earn their accolades as he tries to shepherd energy legislation through the House of Representatives this week.

No matter how Barton and his colleagues try to "spin" the product of their committee deliberations,  the House energy legislation fails one of the key "objectives" set forth by President Bush in his April 16 radio address: "The energy bill must encourage more production at home in environmentally sensitive ways." [emphasis added]

Indeed, if the legislation became law in its current form, it would prolong smog problems in much of the nation, shift the burden of cleaning up poisoned water supplies from oil companies to cash-strapped public agencies, and even threaten environmental damage from some forms of renewable energy. These are on top of the well-publicized provisions that would permit big oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a few months worth of oil that wouldn't reach consumers for a decade.

Itemizing the anti-environmental provisions of the House energy bill is a mind-numbing exercise: new loopholes that could reduce gas mileage requirements; weaker protections for coastal communities; tax breaks to promote more coal burning.  And that's just the beginning. But here are several glaring examples that illustrate the potential for environmental harm.

Dirty Water

The energy bill would shield major oil companies from federal and state product liability lawsuits for the widespread contamination of the nation's drinking water supplies with the gasoline additive MTBE. This chemical leaks out of underground gasoline storage tanks and from gasoline spills, dissolves and spreads readily in groundwater, does not degrade easily and is difficult and expensive to remove. 

At least 29 states have reported MTBE contamination, according to Environmental Working Group. The American Water Works Association, representing 4,700 U.S. water systems, estimates nationwide MTBE cleanup and water replacement costs at $29 billion. Under the House energy bill, the public would be stuck with the cost.

As has been widely noted, the biggest defenders of MTBE--and the proposed legal shield--are Barton and Rep. Tom DeLay, both recipients of MTBE cash.

The bill also would give MTBE makers (small companies like ExxonMobil) $1.75 billion for transition costs.  It would also allow the White House to overturn a suggested ban on the chemical's use. No wonder Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.,  called the MTBE provisions "a direct assault on the nation's safe drinking water supply."

If that's not enough potential damage to the water, the bill also would exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act a process called hydraulic fracturing, in which chemicals are pumped into coal beds in order to coax out methane gas. Many fear this process could harm groundwater. One prominent company that uses hydraulic fracturing: Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's old firm.

Dirty-Air Dominoes

An industry-backed provision drafted by Barton would weaken the Clean Air Act and threaten to prolong smog problems in much of the nation.  Under current law, states must devise air quality improvement plans which demonstrate they will meet smog standards by a set deadline (in most big-population areas, the deadline is 2010 under the 8-hour smog standard which went into effect last year). 

The dirty-air provision would say that if an area is affected by pollution coming from somewhere--and virtually every state in the eastern half of the country falls in this category--it doesn't have to meet the deadlines or adopt stricter local pollution controls until the "upwind" area does. This creates the potential for a dirty-air domino effect, as each state blames another for its pollution problem.  

For example, Ohio claims it can't meet the standards due to pollution from Indiana. The dirty-air amendment would absolve Ohio from having to make further cleanup--thus passing on the dirty-air problem to states downwind, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

Barton, by the way, has not even bothered to explain why this bad-air plan is in the energy bill (since it doesn't appear to involve energy production).  The answer is simple: The committee chairman gets what he wants--in this case, a delay for his Dallas-Fort Worth district.

Damming Harm

Even when promoting renewable energy--and the bill does little enough of this, by the way, as most of the $8 billion in tax subsidies would go for oil, gas and coal production--the House energy bill threatens environmental harm.

That's because the bill includes a provision that would give new advantages to power companies that own dams. It would give the companies a procedural edge when seeking licenses for hydropower--and would undermine the ability of natural resource agencies to protect fish and wildlife. 

A separate section of the bill would put unprecedented new limits on the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal review of the environmental aspects of major energy projects. Under the bill, federal agencies would not be required to identify or analyze the environmental effects of alternative locations or actions to proposed renewable energy projects.

The Natural Resources Defense Council notes this could create a bad precedent that could be used later to promote even more environmentally destructive projects. Developers could use this precedent to lobby in the future, for example, for similar exemptions for gas, oil, coal or nuclear energy projects.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., points out that even alternative energy projects could have negative effects and would benefit from a review of alternatives--for example, the number and type of wind turbines (since some wind projects have become virtual meat grinders for birds and bats). 

"This is a major, major change in NEPA," said Inslee. "I don't think it is wise."

As in the other energy controversies, he's in the minority--so far.

Sludge Funds

In mid-May, the propaganda machine at the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency was like a diesel engine in overdrive, breaking with its nonpartisan past to help re-elect the president. After cutting deals with oil and diesel engine companies on new standards for diesel heavy equipment, the EPA was proclaiming, hyperbolically, that President Bush was taking bold steps that would usher in a veritable Age of Aquarius for clean air.

While spin-doctors were plying their craft, White House political surgeons were quietly carving up an EPA plan to clean up lethal emissions of electric power plants. By the time they were through, the plan resembled the hapless Trojans slashed apart by Brad Pitt's Achilles.

Progressive staffers at the EPA had been promoting a plan to create incentives for power companies to use energy more efficiently -- an idea that could reduce not only greenhouse gas emissions, but harmful pollutants as well. Behind closed doors, however, the White House axed the idea. What emerged was a plan that favored the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired electric plants.

Though the matter dealt with a seemingly esoteric and technical issue, the stakes were enormous. The White House gambit not only constituted a huge financial windfall for some of the biggest Bush campaign contributors, it also rewarded companies in a number of battleground states important in the November election, including Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

This sorry episode is just the latest in a series of heavy-handed White House moves to tamper with EPA activities in order to help politically wired supporters from the coal fields.

The President had barely taken his oath of office when the pro-coal promotional effort began. In early 2001, President Bush cut the legs out from under then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and disavowed the Kyoto Climate Accord.

Whitman was still reeling from that blow when Vice President Cheney's energy plan -- carved out in secret with the help of coal and power industry lobbyists -- ordered the EPA to rethink its enforcement strategy for dealing with existing coal-burning power plants. Despite Whitman's warning that Bush might pay a "terrible political price" for such a blatant sellout, the result was a slowdown in enforcing the Clean Air Act and new industry-friendly rules that would permit the dirtiest coal plants to continue polluting.

More recently (after Whitman fled the agency, declaring, like departing CIA Director George Tenet, that she needed to "spend more time with my family"), the White House ordered the EPA to pretend that poisonous mercury is not a toxic pollutant -- even while the Food and Drug Administration was warning pregnant women of the risks associated with eating mercury-contaminated fish. A proposed EPA rule was politically doctored by the White House to include language supplied by lawyers from coal-fired power companies.

These ham-fisted White House maneuvers all have one thing in common: they all distort administration policies to favor big coal and coal-burning electric companies -- the source of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to the Republican Party and to the Bush-Cheney re-election effort in particular.

This most recent gambit involves a Bush administration proposal to reduce smog- and soot-forming emissions from power plants during the next two decades. As the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (a quasi-independent watchdog group set up under NAFTA) recently noted, power plants are the biggest source of toxic air contaminants in America. Those emissions -- chiefly from coal-burning plants -- have been linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

The Bush plan is a dud in many respects. It sets weak targets and would permit the biggest polluters to continue spewing poisons well into the next two decades. It would also illegally attempt to substitute this weaker approach for a tougher Clean Air Act requirement to clean up the haze that ruins the views at national parks.

Not surprisingly, the plan also favors the biggest polluters in a seemingly technical respect, and that was the subject of this latest bit of White House interference.

The controversy involved the details of the cleanup strategy, known as the "cap-and-trade" approach. Under this method, the government sets an overall bulk pollution target, and then dishes out pollution "allowances" -- essentially the right to pollute up to a certain amount -- to power companies. If a company pollutes less than its "allowance," it can sell the extra pollution -- a "credit" -- to another company, which could then pollute more than its allowance.

This complicated bookkeeping procedure hinges in part on a key decision: How does the government decide who gets how many allowances?

In the past, the government has distributed allowances based on how much fuel a power company used. It's a system that rewards the biggest and dirtiest coal-burning polluters by giving them the right to continue polluting at higher levels. Think of it as a parent who rewards a delinquent child by giving it a bigger allowance than a better-behaved sibling.

In the recent proposal, EPA staffers drafted a plan that would take public comment on an alternative idea: a system that would dish out the credits based on how much energy is generated. [In the jargon of the bureaucracy, this is called the "output-based" approach, as opposed to the "input-based" strategy.]

The output-based alternative would encourage energy efficiency by rewarding plants with low energy use, including more efficient natural gas, oil or coal. This isn't exactly a radical concept: Automobile tailpipe pollution standards have been set on a similar basis for more than three decades.

This method would promote reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but could involve hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for the polluters. A spokesman for Ohio-based American Electric Power (AEP) conceded to the Wall Street Journal that such an approach could force them to actually buy pollution control equipment -- a shocking thought.

The idea set off alarms at a White House ever eager to defend campaign contributors like AEP board member Dick Brooks, a Bush fundraising "Pioneer" -- or those who "bundle" contributions of at least $100,000. The White House quietly deep-sixed the environmentally preferable alternative.

Of course, AEP wasn't the only company to benefit, and Ohio wasn't the only presidential battleground state with companies that got a break. Others include West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri.

But the money from coal companies pales in comparison to the cash coming in from coal-burning power companies and their lobbyists. The electric power industry has contributed more than $30 million in the last two election cycles, with about two-thirds of the money going to Republicans.

Southern Company, the leading coal-burning polluter in the Southeast, has at least half a dozen Pioneers or Rangers ($200,000 contributors) among the ranks of its employees and lobbyists, including Executive Vice President Dwight Evans. (And, yes, Southern would be a big winner under the Bush "input" strategy.)

Are those companies getting their money's worth? Clearly they think so. The coal mining industry has contributed more than $5 million in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, with about 90 percent of the money going to Republicans. One noteworthy contributor: Bush Pioneer Irl Englehardt, CEO of the nation's biggest coal company, Missouri-based Peabody Energy. Another is West Virginia coal magnate James "Buck" Harless, who played a key role in tipping West Virginia to Bush in 2000.

At least 17 coal-burning power company lobbyists double as Bush Pioneers or Rangers, according to recent report by Public Citizen and the Environmental Integrity Project. This rapidly expanding list recalls the old adage that "money talks." And, as this latest EPA episode shows, Bush is listening.

Frank O'Donnell is the Executive Director of Clean Air Trust.

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