Audit the messenger?
Originally published March 1, 2005
IF CLEANER AIR is the objective, Congress would make more progress doing nothing than by enacting President Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal, according to state and local air-quality regulators.
The group's recommendation to the Senate that it ditch Mr. Bush's proposal in favor of existing Clean Air Act requirements was not only in conflict with but potentially embarrassing to the administration and Republican leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Thus, Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe's request a few days later for financial and tax information from the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the related Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (STAPPA/ALAPCO) looked for all the world like bullying.
Only in hindsight, though, contends a spokesman for Senator Inhofe, who said the request was part of a 10-month investigation of organizations that get federal grant money. Despite its timing, the spokesman called the probe unrelated to STAPPA/ALAPCO's opposition to "Clear Skies."
But the clumsy tactic by an Oklahoma Republican known for staunch support of his state's energy industry has boomeranged on him by spotlighting legislation designed as a payoff to polluters.
Billed as an update of the Clean Air Act, which was last amended in 1990 to deal with acid rain, the "Clear Skies" proposal would instead gut current pollution protections. It would postpone deadlines by up to seven years for cleaning the air in the nation's largest cities, put off reductions of mercury pollution from power plants by nearly a decade, weaken the requirement that new coal-fired utility plants install the latest technology, and eliminate safeguards to protect and improve air quality at national parks.
What's more, the measure makes no attempt to regulate carbon dioxide despite what scientists believe to be its primary role in advancing global warming.
"Really quite a sweetheart deal," observed Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent. "All of the permits or allowances to pollute are handed out to industry for free."
And just as the Environmental Protection Agency is about to impose the long-delayed Interstate Rule, which allows states to protect their citizens from upwind power plant pollution, Senator Inhofe is working furiously to win approval for legislation that would void the effort.
"Clear Skies" is so bad, Mr. Inhofe has not yet been able to muster enough votes to get it out of his committee, despite a GOP majority. He's scheduled to try again tomorrow.
Senator Jeffords, Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee and other environmental advocates on the committee say they are willing to compromise but not to go backward from current law.
Standing firm may require courage, however. Polluting industries see this as a moment when the stars are finally aligned to do away with costly impediments to their business.
If their arsenal is unleashed, a financial audit could seem like a flesh wound.