Opposition Stands Firm to Bush Air Plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 3, 2005 (ENS) - The future of the legislative version of the Bush administration's utility air pollution plan, known as "Clear Skies," is in doubt as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee appears deadlocked on the controversial bill.

The committee is currently split 9-9 - with Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee the sole Republican against the bill - and neither side offered much chance of compromise during Wednesday's hearing on the proposal.

Failure of the bill to pass out of committe would be a rebuff to the agenda of President George W. Bush. In his State of the Union address to Congress last night, the President said, "My Clear Skies legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens."

Committee chair James Inhofe, who is cosponsor of the bill, told colleagues he plans a vote on the bill in two weeks.

"This is the final hearing I plan to hold on this issue," said Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. "There is not much more to talk about."

The latest version of the Bush "Clear Skies" plan sets new limits for emissions of the toxic metal mercury as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) - key components of particulate matter and smog.

The plan aims to cut these emissions some 70 percent by 2018 through a cap and trade system. This pollution causes some 25,000 premature deaths each year as well as more than 35,000 heart attacks and the half a million asthma attacks.

Although there is concern among Democrats that the latest version of the "Clear Skies" proposal is too lax and littered with loopholes, much of the debate has centered on something not addressed by the bill - utility emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Chafee has said he will not support a bill that does not cut carbon emissions, a view echoed by some Democrats on the committee.

"I am a 'Johnny come lately' on global warming but I have been convinced over time that something is happening to our world," said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. "We need to take steps sooner rather than later."

"I urge a bipartisan effort," Carper said. "If we don't do that we are not going to get much done."

U.S. coal-fired power plants are a major source of CO2, the leading contributor to global warming, accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. total and 10 percent of global carbon emissions.

Inhofe

Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. (Photo courtesy Senate)

Most Republicans - and the Bush administration - have no interest in forcing utilities to cut their CO2 emissions and some continue to doubt the impact these emissions have on the climate.

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski acknowledged that her state has become the "poster child for global warming," but said she remains unconvinced CO2 from human activities is "an agent of climate change."

"The science ... is anything but conclusive," Murkowski said. "We have had rising temperatures and we are seeing changes in the Arctic, but the question is what is causing the changes."

Inhofe reminded colleagues that the Senate has repeatedly failed to pass even a moderate cap on CO2 emissions and blasted critics of the bill.

"Given the environmental benefits and predictability of this bill, I would question those who say we are standing on ideology not to include carbon mandates," he said. "Clear Skies will clean up the air - it will reduce emissions faster, cleaner and more efficiently than Clean Air Act. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not been paying attention."

The plan will ensure certainty for the industry and protect jobs, added Missouri Republican Kit Bond.

"It will impose a $50 billion mandate on power plant companies," said Bond, "but it will prevent costly litigation that delay pollution cuts and run up costs."

Critics remain unconvinced.

"This bill eviscerates the Clean Air Act," said Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent. "It represents the biggest rollback of the Act ever presented to this committee."

Democrats said the proposal repeals deadlines for state compliance with federal air standards, adds loopholes for older power plants to ignore mandated technology upgrades currently required by law, and prohibits downwind states from pursuing any pollution reductions from power plants in upwind states. emissions

The Bush administration has moved on several fronts to ease clean air rules for the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants. (Photo courtesy NASA)
"Some have said the choice this session is between Clear Skies and nothing," said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. "If that is the choice, I would recommend we do nothing."

A new concern with the legislation is an opt-in provision for other industries, a move critics say will further undermines existing regulation and allow more pollution in the air for much longer.

John Walke, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the committee the provision "is so broad that any source that emits SO2, NOx or mercury" will be allowed to opt-in to the plan, including oil refineries, chemical plants, pharmaceutical plants and cement kilns.

This allows credits to be generated even when the pollution reductions are legally required, Walke said, and those credits can then be sold to other affected units in the program - relieving those power plant units of the need to cut their harmful emissions.

The language was not in the original Bush plan, but a senior administration official told the committee the White House favors it.

"We strongly support the opt-in concept as long as it does not dilute the caps," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

When pressed to say whether the White House supports the language in the Inhofe legislation, Connaughton said the administration "does not take positions on bills when they are in committee."

"But the administration likes this bill and we want to see it get out of committee as quickly as possible," Connaughton said.

If the bill cannot get out of committee, Republican leaders could use a Senate rule to bring the bill directly to the floor.