By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A05
The Bush administration's new program to cut harmful pollutants from utilities through a cap-and-trade system will do nearly as much to clean the nation's air as the Clinton administration's effort to make aging power plants install pollution controls when they modernize or expand, a report by an independent scientific panel has concluded.
The report from the National Academy of Sciences, released yesterday, represents the latest effort to assess how best to reduce air pollution estimated to cause as many as 24,000 premature deaths each year. The panel concluded that an earlier Bush plan would have allowed pollution to increase over a dozen years, but it found that the administration's more recent Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) -- which targets emissions from power plants in 22 states and the District of Columbia -- would help clean the air over the next two decades.
The CAIR approach aims to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 70 percent by 2025 at the latest, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, through a system that would allow utilities to sell and buy pollution credits as long as industry emissions as a whole stayed below a pre-set cap. The Clinton administration had focused on cutting emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act through a program called New Source Review (NSR), now discarded, which required aging plants to install new, cleaner technology every time they upgraded facilities.
The Bush administration initially proposed changes to New Source Review that would have allowed power companies to modify their plants by as much as 20 percent of their value without installing new controls, a policy the scientific panel said "would be expected to cause an increase" in both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that would have been "possibly substantial."
That plan has largely been struck down by the courts, however, so the scientific panel instead looked at the cap-and-trade rule the administration adopted this spring.
The academy committee's chairman, Charles F. Stevens, a molecular neurobiology professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., said that while the rule would help reduce pollution, "you can't conclude" it would be as uniformly effective as Clinton's approach, because some communities might face serious pollution from aging power plants that chose to buy credits rather than install advanced emission controls.
The report also noted that "because of a lack of data and the limitations of current [computer] models," the panel had difficulty predicting the impact of the program on emissions, public health and energy efficiency.
Using an assumption that federal officials would have been able to force 7.5 percent of aging power plants to clean up their operations each year if they had continued with Clinton's approach, Stevens added, NSR would have done as much to clean the air as the cap-and-trade system.
William L. Wehrum, EPA's acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, said that was an "implausible" assumption and added that NSR would only have achieved the same result as the Bush administration's strategy if 98 percent of all power plants complied over the next 20 years.
"Any reasonable projection of what NSR is going to accomplish won't come close to what CAIR is going to accomplish," Wehrum said in an interview. The Bush plan "gets significant reductions across the power sector but places greater emphasis on controlling the biggest emitters, which are the places we care about most."
Scott Segal, a utilities lobbyist, concurred that the report proved "cap-and-trade programs are really what reduce emissions."
But John Walke, who directs the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said the study shows the administration has not adopted sufficiently aggressive curbs on pollution.
"This report shows that strong Clean Air Act enforcement with a robust cap-and-trade program will better protect the public from power plant pollution than the Bush administration's path of nonenforcement and weak pollution trading that drags out twenty years," Walke said, adding the administration was offering a "reckless misinterpretation" of the report's conclusions.