White House backs down on easing air-pollution rules

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 10, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Wednesday abandoned efforts to relax pollution controls on coal-fired power plants and industries it started with Vice President Dick Cheney's energy plan in 2001, bringing to a sudden end a long White House fight with environmental groups.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency also finalized a third rule that would allow for more polluted dust from mines, animal farms and other sources.

Environmental and health groups and state and local air-quality officials opposed the two rules that the administration dropped. One of them would have permitted coal-fired power plants and industries to increase their emissions without adding pollution controls. The other would’ve made it easier to build power plants and factories near national parks and other pristine protected areas.

Utilities had argued for the changes for years, saying that they needed to be able to increase their efficiency at the lowest possible cost.

EPA didn’t issue a news release to explain the decision, but spokesman Jonathan Shradar confirmed it. He said there wasn't enough time to complete the action on relaxing the rules before the Bush administration ended.

John Walke, a former EPA attorney who's now with the Natural Resources Defense Council and who'd argued that the two rules would have been unlawful and destructive, said in a statement that he was glad they were dropped.

"We can look forward as a civilized society to tackling the critical problems of global warming, smog and soot pollution that continues to damage our health, and toxic mercury that contaminates our waters," Walke said.

The rule that the EPA announced that it would finalize was "nasty," but not as destructive as the other two, Walke said. It was designed so that what the EPA calls "fugitive emissions" — those that don't flow through smokestacks — could be excluded from consideration in decisions about whether a facility is big enough to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, he said. "It's designed to exempt mines and factory farms, by and large, from Clean Air permitting programs."

It was the two rules, however, that were dropped that were among some of the most significant changes the administration had been seeking of environmental regulations. Some EPA officials had argued privately within the agency against them. Environmental, public health and state and local air quality officials had sent comments to the EPA urging it to drop them. Even so, lawmakers and nonprofit groups who opposed them didn't expect they'd be suddenly abandoned.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Commmittee, welcomed the decision. "Our children and families can breather easier now that the EPA has abandoned two controversial plans to undermine clean air protections through midnight regulations," she said in a statement.

One of the abandoned rules would have changed the way pollution is measured from annually to hourly. The Clean Air Act requires older plants that have their lives extended with new equipment to install pollution-control technology if their emissions increase. Environmentalists said the rule change would have allowed plants to run for more hours without triggering the requirement for additional pollution controls.

Jeffrey Holmstead, who headed the EPA's air program from 2001 to 2005, said it wasn't true that overall pollution would have increased if the rules had gone into effect because an existing regulation sets a declining cap.

"I think it's disappointing that they didn't go forward with these rules, and unfortunately it really means that there is going to be continued uncertainty. What it really means as a practical matter is that power plants, rather than just having engineers who are trying to figure out how to make them as efficient as possible, they're going to continue to have teams of lawyers look at every project to make sure they don't run afoul of the EPA's regulations," he said.

The power industry would shut down some smaller plants because they’re not used enough to justify an investment in new equipment, Holmstead said.

Frank O'Donnell, head of the watchdog group Clean Air Watch, which opposed the rule changes the administration and utilities were seeking, said the news was mixed.

"The Bush administration saw the handwriting on the wall — realizing the Obama administration would throw those two high-profile rules into the regulatory trash can. But they still put out a rule that will mean more dirty air."

Mark Wenzler of the National Parks Conservation Association said citizens, members of Congress, the National Park Service and EPA scientists all were "expressing outrage" about the rule change that would have eased the way for power plants near national parks and wilderness areas. Wenzler's group had fought the rule for two years.

A bipartisan group of senators planned to introduce a resolution of disapproval on Thursday, he said. "We believe this was the last straw that caused (the White House's Office of Management and Budget) to pull the rule just days before it was to be finalized."

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