The White House plans to push Congress to retool the nation's air quality laws early next year, according to administration and industry officials.
The move has alarmed environmentalists, who fear that President Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal -- which has not moved in Congress since he unveiled it in 2002 -- would undercut existing federal standards more than the administration's pending plan to revise pollution controls through regulation.
Over the weekend, administration officials told Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt to delay issuing the Clean Air Interstate Rule, a proposal to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in 28 states that either fail to meet national air quality standards or produce pollution that ends up in other states. Leavitt, whom Bush chose yesterday to head the Department of Health and Human Services, had promised to issue the rules this month, with the goal of cutting nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution by 70 percent sometime after 2015.
In March, the EPA expects to finalize proposed regulations to curb mercury emissions by 70 percent over the same time period.
Now Bush hopes to focus his attention on Congress, which has been deadlocked for years on the question of air quality. Bolstered by a larger Senate GOP majority, the administration is hoping it can pass legislation to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system that would allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits.
James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said passing Clear Skies represents one of Bush' s "top clean-air, clean-energy priorities for next year." Although the EPA will continue to work on new air quality rules, Connaughton said, the administration would prefer legislation because "it applies nationwide and will have greater overall reductions and benefits."
Electric utility operators, who are responsible for 22 percent of the nation's nitrogen oxide and 68 percent of its sulfur dioxide pollution, said yesterday that they prefer a legislative approach over a new set of federal rules.
"No set of regulations, no matter how well crafted, can provide the same degree of certainty for business and the environment as sensible legislation," said Thomas R. Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute. "Unfortunately, any new regulations almost inevitably will be delayed by litigation, perpetuating uncertainty for power companies and hindering air quality improvements."
But several environmental advocates said the administration is undermining public health by delaying the interstate rule and pressing for legislation that, they said, would make it easier for companies to continue polluting. Clear Skies would represent the most sweeping changes in the Clean Air Act since 1990.
"The Clean Air Act is now under a great threat from Congress, and delaying the interstate rule will fuel the fire that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe is trying to light under Congress to go after the law," said Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell, referring to the Oklahoma Republican.
In contrast to the "interstate" rule, which mainly affects states east of the Mississippi River and sets tighter controls on the two pollutants, the Clear Skies bill makes more sweeping changes to air quality enforcement and regulates mercury as well. The bill, which Inhofe hopes to put to a committee vote in February, would postpone deadlines for meeting public health standards on smog and fine-particle soot from 2009 to 2015 and would exempt affected smokestacks from "new source review" requirements that require plants to install stricter pollution controls when they upgrade their equipment.
Clear Skies still faces significant Democratic opposition: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who serves on an Appropriations panel overseeing the EPA's budget, said in an interview that Clear Skies is "a polluting bill" that is worse than current law. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy and air quality, said he would "think long and hard" about whether a cap-and-trade system is appropriate for regulating mercury and nitrogen oxide.
Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) have filed bills that would go further than Clear Skies by curbing carbon dioxide emissions and achieving steeper and faster reductions in the other three pollutants. Jeffords's bill would curb nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution 75 percent by 2009, for example, while Carper's plan would obtain a 60 percent cut in the two pollutants by 2009.