Bush Defends Clean Air Policies
MONROE, Michigan, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - Few of the Bush administration's environmental policies have drawn more criticism than the revisions to federal clean air rules. Many critics say these changes represent the largest rollback of clean air protection in U.S. history, but today President George W. Bush defended his record and said his policies will protect the environment, boost the economy and increase the reliability of the nation's power supply.
"We can grow our economy and protect the environment at the same time," Bush said. "It is not one or the other, it is both. When we talk about environmental policy in this Bush administration, we not only talk about clean air, we talk about jobs."
Speaking today at a coal fired power plant in Michigan, Bush said that his controversial revisions to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program will not result in more pollution, but will allow power plants to produce more energy.
"The old regulations undermined our goals for protecting the environment and growing the economy," Bush said. "The old regulations on the books made it difficult to either protect the economy or - protect the environment or grow the economy. Therefore, I wanted to get rid of them. I am interested in job creation and clean air, and I believe we can do both."
The New Source Review program was established in 1977 to ensure that older facilities built before the Clean Air Act took effect in 1970 would not hamper the nation's progress toward cleaner air. The program required owners of industrial facilities to install the best pollution control equipment available when they made a major modification to an existing facility that increased emissions.
But the New Source Review was written with an exemption for activities that qualified as "routine maintenance" - and it is this loophole that the Bush administration has changed.
Industry representatives and the President say that the original definition of what constitutes routine maintenance deterred some facilities from performing important repairs for fear they would trigger New Source Review, thereby impeding efficiencies that could benefit consumers and the environment.
The new rule exempts facility modifications that cost less than a certain percentage of the entire facility or specific equipment, as much as 20 percent for some industries. If the modification is more than 20 percent, a facility could still find exemption from New Source Review if it is replacing pieces of equipment with other pieces that serve the same function.
"We simplified the rules," Bush said. "We made them easy to understand. We trust the people in this plant to make the right decisions."
Critics, which include state pollution control officials, state attorney generals, environmentalists, public health groups, Democrats and even some Republicans, say the administration's revision of New Source Review eviscerates a program that has been an important and effective tool in cleaning the nation's air.
They fear it will allow the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants to extend operations without having to increase pollution controls and argue that a slew of recent federal court cases indicate the existing regulations were working.
Critics add that a report issued last month by the General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - found the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relied on industry anecdotes as justification of its changes to the New Source Review program.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer called the rule "flagrantly illegal" and said he will sue the administration to block its implementation. Officials with at least eight states have indicated they would join a legal challenge to the rule.
"These weakening changes are nothing other than a gift to campaign contributors," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust. "They will mean more air pollution - and more public health damage."
The plant that Bush toured today - Detroit Edison Company's Monroe Power Plant - illustrates this point, critics say.
The facility is the nation's second largest coal fired power plant and analysis of the Monroe plant's air permit shows that it could, under the new rules, legally pump out over 36,000 tons of additional sulfur dioxide (SO2), according to Angela Ledford, director of the environmental group Clear the Air.
But Bush says that environmental protection will be upheld under his reforms because they will allow much needed efficiency projects to go forward. Such projects, include some at the Monroe plant, were delayed under the old regulations because of confusion and uncertainty, Bush said.
And the President touted the release of the EPA's new annual air quality trends, which show that air quality continues to improve. The EPA data shows that air pollution from six major pollutants is down by 48 percent over the past three decades, and Bush noted that the U.S. economy has grown 164 percent over the same time period.
"There is reason for this progress, and it is because our nation made a commitment," Bush said, pointing to the Clean Air Act, which was enacted in 1970.
With that law, Bush said, "we set high goal, we said 'this is a national priority.'"
"My administration strongly supports the Clean Air Act, and I believe that by combining the ethic of good stewardship and the spirit of innovation, we will improve the quality of our air even further," Bush said.
But the President also touted his air pollution plan - known as Clear Skies - that he hopes will replace the Clean Air Act.
The Clear Skies plan uses a cap and trade approach that has proven successful in reducing acid rain and the administration says it will reduce power plant emissions of SO2, nitrogen oxides and mercury by some 70 percent by 2018. Administration officials say Clear Skies will achieve these benefits more quickly and efficiently than the Clean Air Act.
"Instead of the government telling utilities where and how to cut pollution, we will work with them to create a cap, how much to cut, and when we expect it cut by, but you figure out how," Bush told employees of the Monroe plant. "You are a lot better in figuring out the how than people in Washington, D.C."
But lawmakers - both Democrats and Republicans - are skeptical of the administration's claims about the Clear Skies legislation, which died in Congress last year and could face a similar fate this year.
"The backdrop of President Bush's latest environment photo op - the dirtiest power plant in Michigan - says it all," said Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. "Rather than praise polluters, our President should demand they clean up their act."
This was the President's 11th trip to Michigan since he took office - a key political state that he lost in the 2002 election. In today's speech Bush also linked his clean air policies to the war on terrorism and to last month's historic blackout.
"The biggest challenge we face is the security of our people," Bush said. "We have got to make sure that America is secure from the enemies which hate us. And we have got to make America secure by having an economy that grows so people can find work."
Bush said the blackout showed that the nation has an power grid in need of modernization and that his administration "will put the spotlight of truth on the facts" regarding why the such a massive power outage occurred.
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