Dirtier Air

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency is pushing to issue an ill-advised rule that would allow old, pollution-spewing power plants to increase deadly emissions without restriction. This should not happen. If it does, it will be yet another astonishing decision by an administration that insists that its record on the environment and climate change is misunderstood and underappreciated.

Since 2005, the EPA has been trying to change the new source review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act. The NSR provisions require pollution controls based on how power plant emissions will affect surrounding communities. Currently, existing power plants must undergo NSR whenever they make renovations that increase their annual emissions. The Bush administration would change the review trigger from annual emissions to maximum hourly emissions. This is a problem because repairs to those old power plants might leave the maximum hourly emissions unchanged but increase total operating hours, meaning annual emissions could rise.

The EPA has argued that there was no need to worry about increased pollution as a result of the new NSR rule because of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). This regulation sought to reduce the amounts of contaminants from power plants that settle downwind in another state by 70 percent for sulfur dioxide and 60 percent for nitrogen oxide. It covered the District of Columbia and 28 states in the Midwest and the East. In announcing the new NSR rule in 2005, the EPA said it was needed to "harmonize" and "complement" CAIR and other clean air rules. But here's the next problem: The CAIR rule was vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in July.

Undaunted, the EPA is pressing forward. In response to a request in June from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the agency revealed the results of three computer models that showed that its proposed NSR rule would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 74 million tons annually. Mr. Waxman contends that this would be "roughly equivalent to the total annual CO2emissions of about 14 average coal-fired power plants."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council, have called on the EPA to undertake a new analysis of the impact of its proposed NSR rule, given that the CAIR regulation has been nullified. They also demanded that the agency publish a notice for public comment on any new analysis. We agree. Instituting this rule would be willful disregard of science, the intent of the Clean Air Act and the public's right to have a voice in such an important decision. And it would cement the Bush administration's say-one-thing-and-do-another reputation on climate change. The planet is warming faster than scientists had predicted. What the EPA might do would make it worse.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company