Rollback On Clean Air

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 25 Jan 2002
Time: 02:05:07
Remote Name:


Date: 020109 
New York Times, January 9, 2002 

A proposal to weaken an important provision in the Clean Air Act is making its way to the White House for a final decision by President Bush. The recommendation, from the Energy Department and The Environmental Protection Agency, is variously described as "tentative" and "informal" - in any case, not final. One can only hope so. It is a bad idea, one of several to emerge from Vice President Dick Cheney's task force on energy last spring. By rejecting it, the administration can spare itself the kind of embarrassment it suffered when it tried to roll back the Clinton administration's arsenic standard last year. 

At issue is a complicated section of the Clean Air Act known as new source review. The provision requires existing power plants to install modern controls whenever they are significantly upgraded or expanded, putting them on a par with new, cleaner plants. This was aimed mainly at hundreds of aging, coal-fired power plants that were exempted from the original act's stringent regulations in the expectation that they would soon be retired. Most of them are still going strong, contributing to smog and acid rain. 

Plants in the Midwest send so much pollution eastward on the prevailing winds that it is almost impossible for states like New York and New Jersey to meet federal clean air standards. This windblown pollution - which will surely increase if new source review is weakened without an adequate substitute - accounts for the presence in Washington yesterday of the attorneys general of nine Eastern states, including New York's Eliot Spitzer. They urged the administration not to undermine the law. They also warned that weakening new source review would compromise lawsuits filed in 1999 against utilities that they said had been breaking the law by upgrading old plants without installing the necessary controls. 

New source review applies to all industrial sectors, including the oil, gas and chemical industries. But the big utilities with old coal- fired plants have complained the loudest. They say the law is vague, requiring expensive controls even when only routine maintenance is involved. They also say that the law penalizes investments in efficiency, which is absurd on its face. The law is triggered only when plants create more pollution. Efficiency, in this context, means creating more power without increasing pollution - not just making maximum profits with minimum investment. 

Without question, pollution controls are expensive. But the country long ago said that it was willing to pay for cleaner air. And new source review, if fully applied to all old plants, could lead to truly remarkable reductions in chemicals that produce smog and acid rain, as much as 80 percent in the case of acid rain, according to an Energy Department study in December 2000. The main proponent of a rollback seems to be the energy secretary, Spencer Abraham. Christie Whitman, the E.P.A. administrator, who supported the law (and the 1999 lawsuits) when she was governor of New Jersey, is said to favor modest adjustments aimed at clarifying the law. 

Eastern senators, including James Jeffords of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, want no changes unless the administration comes up with an alternate plan that achieves the same reductions or better. They are also sufficiently alarmed by the rollback reports that they have decided to summon Bush officials to testify. Perhaps the administration can yet be persuaded of the error of its ways. 

* * * Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Last changed: October 13, 2006