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Panel: Plan Lowers Clean-Air Standards

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A07

The Bush administration's bill to curb air pollution from power plants would reduce air pollution less than the current Clean Air Act rules, according to a preliminary report by the National Academy of Sciences released yesterday.

The 18-member panel's initial assessment of proposals to regulate aging coal-fired power plants represents the latest salvo in the ongoing battle over how best to clean up the nation's air. The president's "Clear Skies" bill would set up a cap-and-trade program that aims to cut sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury pollution from utilities by 70 percent after 2018; the Senate will conduct hearings on the plan in two weeks.

The administration has also retooled federal "New Source Review" (NSR) rules, which require plants to install costly emissions controls if they increase pollution when modifying the facilities. The administration's revised rules, which have been blocked by a federal judge since late 2003, would require new controls only when the modifications equal 20 percent of a plant's replacement cost.

The academy report, commissioned by Congress in 2003 after Democrats tried to stall the administration's revision of NSR regulations, said it is difficult to gauge the effects of that plan because data are scarce.

But the committee, which consists largely of academics, said in its 160-page report that it is "unlikely that Clear Skies would result in emission limits at individual sources that are tighter than those achieved when NSR is triggered at the same sources. . . . In general, NSR provides more stringent emission limits for new and modified major sources than" Clear Skies. The panel will issue a final report by the end of the year.

The NSR rule triggered dozens of state and federal suits against more than 50 power plants during the 1990s and forced some to install new pollution controls. The administration argues that this approach costs jobs and keeps plants from running at full capacity.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the report "provides further proof that the Bush administration has been recklessly tinkering with the Clean Air Act for several years and wants to go even further. They want to replace existing programs, like New Source Review, that have documented benefits, with a proposal that is weaker and slower when it comes to reducing emissions and protecting health and the environment."

But Environmental Protection Agency officials and Senate Republicans questioned the academy's assessment. They said it ignores the success of cap-and-trade programs such as the one for acid rain, which has cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions about a third since 1990, and that new plants would have incentives to reduce emissions because they would get no pollution allowances, unlike older plants.

"It's the same argument we've had before," said Will Hart, spokesman for Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). "Overall, Clear Skies is more protective of human health because we know we're going to get early and guaranteed reductions from it. New Source Review is a piecemeal approach, while Clear Skies is certain."

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