Inhofe Delays Vote on Bush Air Plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 17, 2005 (ENS) - Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe canceled a scheduled vote Wednesday on the Bush administration's electric utility air pollution plan.

The move came in response to concern by proponents of the "Clear Skies Act" that they do not have the votes to pass the controversial legislation out of the committee.

The committee currently appears split 9-9 on the measure, with Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee the sole Republican in opposition.

Inhofe told colleagues he plans to hold a vote in two weeks on the measure, which aims to cut power plant emissions of the mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides through a cap and trade system.

"We need to have that time to determine if there is a middle ground," the Oklahoma Republican said.

Democrats welcomed Inhofe's decision, but a compromise on the bill could be elusive given the nature of the disagreement. Inhofe

Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe is chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The plan has strong support from industry and business groups, which say the current Clean Air Act encourages litigation and creates an uncertain regulatory climate that provides disincentives for pollution reductions.

Critics, including state pollution control officials, environmentalists, public health advocates and some state attorneys general, contend the proposal is too lax, littered with loopholes and less stringent than existing law.

They note an interim report released last month by the National Research Council found the Clean Air Act would force more comprehensive and quicker emission cuts.

The stakes are high for both sides.

The United States has a vast supply of coal, which currently generates more than half the nation's electricity.

Proponents insist the bill ensures a viable future for the fossil fuel and say it will force the industry to spend some $52 billion in new emission controls.

Yet the health concerns from coal combustion are severe and opponents of the Bush plan contend it does not do enough to protect the public from air pollution. Chafee

Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee says carbon reductions should be part of any new air pollution legislation. (Photo courtesy Senate)
Emissions from coal-fired power plants cause some 25,000 premature deaths each year, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as more than 35,000 heart attacks and the half a million asthma attacks.

And debate over the proposal has of late become embroiled on something not addressed by the bill - utility emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).

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. About 75 percent of coal-fired boilers are more than 30 years old and do not have modern pollution controls.

Committee Democrats have to date been adamant that any multipollutant bill must also cap carbon emissions - a position echoed by Chafee.

Inhofe has targeted Chafee and Montana Democrat Max Baucus, whose state has the more coal than any other state, as possible swing votes on the legislation.

Delaware Democrat Tom Carper called the delay a "constructive step" but cautioned Republicans not to revise the bill only to attract the votes needed to get the bill out of the committee.

"The truth is, to get anything contentious through the Senate, you need 60 votes," said Carper, who urged proponents to also consider discussing the proposal with members of the House of Representatives.

Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich, a cosponsor of the bill, said there is some room for negotiation on carbon, but there remains virtually no chance the legislation will call for mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide.

The White House is steadfast against mandatory carbon dioxide cuts and the Senate has repeatedly failed to pass even a moderate cap on CO2 emissions. There is even less support for such a measure in the House.

Voinovich said an amendment he and Inhofe introduced Tuesday addresses many of the concerns Democrats have with the bill. power plant

Entergy Arkansas' Independence coal-fired power plant burns subbituminous coal. (Photo courtesy Entergy Arkansas)
"All of us have worked conscientiously to try and find a compromise," Voinovich said. "We have made some great progress."

The amendment bumps the implementation date for the caps on emissions up to 2016 from 2018, ensures the caps cannot be raised, tightens the mercury limits for individual plants and includes a $650 million incentive for coal gasification technology.

"It makes so many changes," Voinovich said, that an industry lobbyist told him it is "considerably to the left of the introduced bill."

The amendment also limits some of the controversial opt-in provisions afforded to other industries, Voinovich said, tightens protections for national parks and strengthens a provision in the bill critics fear could undermine new health-based federal standards for ozone and particulate matter.

Although the amendment was not enough to convince opponents to change their minds ahead of Wednesday's hearing, Voinovich said he will continue to press for their support.

"I will spend whatever time is necessary to come up with a compromise," he told colleagues.