A Clear Skies Smokescreen
March 07, 2005
From the outset, the real goal of the Clear Skies Act has been to cut breaks for the biggest polluters—to postpone cleanup deadlines into the mid- 2020s, to eliminate pesky provisions of current law and to take away states’ rights to enforce the law. Now Bush allies in the Senate are trying to strong-arm moderates into accepting Clear Skies, instead of standing for the existing Clean Air Act's stronger polluter requirements. Veteran environmentalist Frank O'Donnell explains.
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act. Visit the website at www.cleanairwatch.org.
On March 4, when President Bush named EPA career scientist Stephen Johnson as the agency’s new head, the president declared that Johnson’s main job would be selling the so-called “clear skies” plan to Congress.
It may have been a last-ditch effort to breathe new life into the president’s ill-named, industry-friendly proposal. If the plan isn’t already six feet under, it’s clear that some lawmakers are eyeing the shovels.
Even so, the Bush administration and its corporate allies are feverishly lobbying in an effort to ram this polluter protection plan through a closely divided Senate. Their strategy is focused on picking off moderate Senate Democrats such as Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. (In what appears to have been an audition for his new job, Johnson recently toured Obama’s Illinois to promote the Bush plan in the local media.) It’s still unclear whether any of the moderates will bend under the White House pressure.
Given the complex spiderwork of lies spun by the White House and its corporate allies on this issue, it might be worth a moment to step back and examine what the “clear skies” fuss is all about.
To put the issue in context, it’s worth recalling that when President Clinton left office, the biggest electric power polluters—including Southern Company, American Electric Power and Cinergy—were running scared. Using authorities in the existing Clean Air Act, the Clinton administration had brought lawsuits aimed at compelling cleanup of aging, coal-burning power plants that had been illegally modified to keep running without modern pollution controls. The Clinton EPA had also set in motion a plan to require every power plant in the nation to clean up toxic mercury emissions by 2008.
No sooner had the Bush administration taken office than these and other big polluters (all big Bush campaign contributors) lined up outside Vice President Cheney’s office to request regulatory relief. Cheney, in turn, directed the EPA to reconsider its policy of enforcing the law. In the process, the Bush administration developed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to air pollution—don’t ask the biggest polluters to clean up, and don’t tell the public the truth about what’s really happening. Enforcement trailed off, and Bush appointees crafted an illegal plan to permit power companies to continue spewing toxic mercury for decades.
But the big power companies remained concerned that a future administration could revive enforcement of the law. And so the “clear skies” plan was born, with support of the biggest and worst power polluters. From the outset, the real goal has been to cut breaks for the biggest polluters—to postpone cleanup deadlines into the mid- 2020s, to eliminate pesky provisions of current law and to take away states’ rights that would permit a state attorney general like New York’s Eliot Spitzer to enforce the law. The Bush plan also would, in effect, grant coal-burning power companies a shield against calls for them to limit carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming.
The White House has consistently misrepresented the “clear skies” plan since it was first unveiled three years ago. It claimed that the Clean Air Act must be changed to make further progress against air pollution. [That administration lie was caught after EPA staffers leaked an agency PowerPoint presentation, which noted that “business as usual”—that is, enforcement of the existing Clean Air Act—would mean cleaner air more quickly than a rewrite of the law.]
Carrying the administration’s legislative spear in the Senate are James Inhofe, R-Okla.,—chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, perhaps best known for declaring global warming a “hoax”—and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, whose home-state power companies desperately want to evade the cleanup requirements of existing law.
To date, the Inhofe committee has been deadlocked 9-9 as Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., has joined Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and the Democratic minority in opposing the Bush plan. Efforts by the Republican majority to break the deadlock have taken on comic opera dimensions. (In a blatant bid to buy Baucus’ vote, Inhofe introduced a new draft of the bill with special privileges for a Montana coal mine.)
Emerging as leader of the committee’s pivotal “moderate” faction (which includes Baucus, Chafee and Obama) is soft-spoken Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Clean Air Subcommittee. Carper has repeatedly said he is open to a compromise that might simplify existing law—especially if coupled with mandatory limits on global warming pollution from power plants. But Carper is insisting that the administration provide him more analysis of alternatives before he agrees to any compromise.
There are many reasons why Carper and his colleagues should not be stampeded into accepting a weakening of the Clean Air Act. Here’s just one example: the EPA is expected this week to announce new “clean air interstate” rules. Those rules, being issued under the authority of current law, will call for emissions reductions from power plants without the regulatory relief contained in “clear skies.”
Those interstate rules won’t be perfect. As many states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have noted, EPA could use the authority of existing law to make deeper pollution reductions and do it more quickly. However, those rules do demonstrate that the existing Clean Air Act already contains tools needed to make continuing progress against air pollution. Rewriting the law isn’t necessary. Those rules show the Bush-Inhofe-Voinovich legislative plan off for what it really is—a smokescreen to help corporate outlaws evade other clean-air requirements.