Thursday, May 26, 2005

The latest antics of "Smokey Joe" Barton

Editorial Observer

A Lawmaker Works, Oddly Enough, to Keep His Voters' Backyards Dangerous

By ADAM COHEN, New York Times
Published: May 26, 2005


It is no surprise, given the close ties between industry and regulators in Washington these days, that Joe Barton is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mr. Barton, a Texas Republican, is such an energy industry loyalist - and so soft on air pollution - that his hometown paper dubbed him "Smokey Joe." He has regularly helped his industry friends by weakening environmental laws and handing out tax breaks. But now he seems poised to do something far more disturbing: block legislation to secure chemical plants against terrorist attacks.

Chemical plants are probably the nation's greatest vulnerability. President Bush's former deputy homeland security adviser, Richard Falkenrath, told Congress last month that they stand "alone as uniquely deadly, pervasive and susceptible to terrorist attack." The death toll from a chemical plant attack could easily outstrip 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that a single chlorine tank explosion could kill 17,500 people.

Two of the country's most dangerous chemical facilities, which threaten more than one million people, are in Dallas, just outside Mr. Barton's district. There is also toxic waste being transported through his district on rail lines and highways. Mr. Barton's committee chairmanship is likely to give him an enormous say in whether chemical plant security legislation passes this year.

That decision pits the interests of his energy industry supporters against the well-being of his constituents who live or work inside the kill zone. Unfortunately, so far Mr. Barton has tilted in favor of industry.

If corporations were allowed to pick congressmen, Mr. Barton is probably just the one the chemical industry would choose. Before his election, he was a consultant for Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Company, and he has accepted more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the energy and chemical industries. In Congress, his causes have been an energy and chemical industry wish list. He has fought to weaken air quality standards that apply to Ellis County, Texas, his home county, which has three enormous cement plants that spew large amounts of toxins. And he has pushed to exempt makers of MTBE, a fuel additive that has spilled into bodies of water across the country, from paying to clean it up.

Even for congressmen used to giving the energy and chemical industries what they want, chemical plant security is a sensitive subject. Individual members are often reluctant to take a public stand against strengthening security, for fear of appearing soft on terrorism or because they do not want to be blamed if there is a successful attack. Senator Jon Corzine's chemical plant bill was unanimously voted out of committee, where senators had to record their votes, but then was quietly blocked when it got to the Senate floor.

Mr. Barton, however, is one of the few congressmen who have spoken out publicly against chemical plant security legislation. In 2003, when there was a serious push to pass a bill, he said he did not see a need for a tough new law. "If there are enough terrorists who are dedicated enough and equipped well enough," he told The National Journal, "they're going to overwhelm everything that you put up short of some sort of Fort Knox - which doesn't make much sense, given the cost and the relatively remote possibility that any specific site is going to be targeted."
The notion that unless chemical plants are as secure as Fort Knox they do not need any security at all is ridiculous. The unfortunate truth is that chemical facilities, including the most dangerous, are so unprotected that they are vulnerable to attack not just by Al Qaeda, but also by much smaller and less sophisticated groups who might be deterred by armed guards and concrete barriers.

I recently visited two plants near Mr. Barton's district, both of which were on the list of the 123 most potentially deadly facilities in the country, and found what appeared to be shocking vulnerability.

At Petra Chemicals, which has large amounts of deadly chlorine on hand, there was a no trespassing sign, but security on the perimeter was minimal. An environmental expert and I parked outside and walked around for more than a half-hour without being stopped. We had no problem walking up to a large railroad car just outside the plant that had a skull and crossbones, and markings indicating that it held up to 90 tons of chlorine. At Harcros Chemicals, another chlorine facility, the fencing was somewhat better. But again, we saw no guards, and no one stopped us when we parked and walked along the plant perimeter, looking as suspicious as we could.

In his much-cited book "What's the Matter With Kansas?," Thomas Frank laments that conservatives have succeeded in getting red-state voters to vote against their own interests on important issues. The Republican Congressional leadership's opposition to a serious chemical plant security bill could test the limits of this phenomenon. If Mr. Barton - or Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is leading the fight in the Senate - sides with industry against his own constituents on averting a Sept. 11 in their own backyard, he could hand his opponents an issue that resonates powerfully with ordinary voters.

That is the narrowly self-interested reason why Mr. Barton, and every other member of Congress, should want to get a strong chemical plant bill through Congress this year. But there is also the test by which all homeland security initiatives should be measured: whether, if there were another terrorist attack, they would feel they had done everything they should have to keep Americans safe.

Energy bill update

The Senate is charting a more moderate course. But there's lots of trouble ahead:

Friday, May 20, 2005

The return of "clear skies?"

Just when you thought it was safe to breathe outside again, there’s word that the moribund “clear skies initiative” may emerge like a vampire from the senatorial cemetery.

Details are elusive, but we understand that Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) is working on a new package that he thinks he can sell to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (You will recall the committee deadlocked earlier this year on the issue, and has put it on the back burner to deal with such topics as transportation and endangered species.)

We hear this is not the product of bi-partisan discussions.

More as we learn more…

Monday, May 16, 2005

McCain eyes global warming-nuclear link

As President Bush goes on the stump today (not on his bike) to plug the much-hyped “biodiesel,” several fascinating story lines will start to unfold tomorrow, when the Senate Energy Committee begins work on its version of energy legislation. As you probably know, last Friday the committee released some provisions of draft legislation. These were worked out in bipartisan fashion and don’t contain some of the extraordinarily bad provisions in the House-passed version of the legislation (for example, the provision by Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, that would weaken the Clean Air Act). However, the panel has not joined battle on some of the biggest issues – including the need for better fuel economy standards (the quickest way to start reducing our dependence on foreign oil), liability protection for makers of the additive MTBE (see more on this, below) and incentives for nuclear power.

On the nuclear issue, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has rocked the behind-the-scenes debate by circulating draft legislation that would link his effort to curb global warming to incentives for nuclear power. The New York Times reported on this yesterday, while giving appropriate credit to Energy Daily for reporting on the story first. The Times noted that McCain met last week with the head of General Electric, which kicked off a big pro-green pr blitz last week while lobbying for nuclear subsidies and a for delay in its obligation to clean up the poisoned Hudson River. (For more on this, see )

Needless to say, many environmentalists are grappling with how to respond to this potential change in the political landscape. Being anti-nuclear has long been a part of orthodox environmentalist thinking, and I suspect many if not most environmentalists will continue to challenge the idea of a nuclear revival. However, there have been some gradual shifts in recent months. You may recall the bi-partisan National Commission on Energy Policy included a pro-nuclear recommendation. And the Times notes that some big-name environmentalists say they are open to a re-examination of nuclear power in the context of global warming. Stay tuned, because this promises to be a contentious battle as the energy debate proceeds.

Another fascinating item today in the Boston Globe, which reports that a company largely owned by the Saudi government has spent more than $1.5 million since 1998 lobbying Congress to shield the industry from liability for damages caused by MTBE. The Globe notes that “The Saudi company, SABIC, is a leading maker of MTBE… The company, which has a member of the Saudi royal family as its chairman, has an office in Houston and a research and technology center in Sugar Land, Texas, [Rep. Tom] DeLay’s hometown and political base.” DeLay, of course, has been a leader in the effort to protect this company, as has Joe Barton.

This story is not likely to help the MTBE makers as the Senate energy debate proceeds!

Friday, May 13, 2005

GE -- Ecoimagination, or Greenwashing?

General Electric is spending a fortune to appear "greener." But it is working behind closed doors in Congress to try to avoid spending to clean up the poisoned Hudson River.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Outside scientists to EPA: set stricter fine particle standards

Another milestone in EPA’s ongoing review of whether the current national air quality standards for fine particle matter (PM 2.5) are adequate.

EPA’s outside science advisors have drafted a letter urging the agency to move ahead with tougher standards. The letter summarizes comments of a little-reported meeting the panel held in North Carolina in April.

This is a significant development. The panel includes scientists with diverse backgrounds – even some with industry affiliations.

The health case for setting tougher fine-particle standards is so compelling that even a panel including industry scientists supports stricter standards. EPA Administrator Steve Johnson is scheduled to propose a decision later this year. Expect the coal, electric power, automobile and diesel engine and manufacturing lobbies to fight tooth and nail against tougher standards.

Below is the link to the draft letter from EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), charged with reviewing the science of fine particle pollution and making recommendations to EPA on whether the current standards should be retained or changed.

In a draft letter, the CASAC panel supports the view of EPA staff scientists that the current standards should be made tougher:

Key excerpts:

“A majority of the members of the Panel were in agreement with the following: The primary PM2.5, 24-hour and annual PM standards should be modified to provide increased public health protection…page 2]

“Of the options presented by EPA for lowering the level of the PM standard, based on the above considerations and the predicted reductions in health impacts derived from the risk analyses, most Panel members favored the option of setting a 24-hour PM2.5 standard at concentrations in the range of 35 to 30 μg/m3, in concert with an annual standard in the range of 14 to 13 μg/m3.”[page 8]

By comparison, the current standards are: 24-hour=65; annual=15

The panel will review the letter in a teleconference meeting on May 18:

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

electric power plants and mercury emissions

There’s been a lot of recent rhetoric from our coal-burning power company friends about how emissions are dropping so much. (Tomorrow, of course, EPA officially publishes its interstate rule, which will require future emission reductions, but at too slow a pace. The companion mercury rule won’t achieve its stated objectives until 2030.)

I know there are a lot of statistics out today about pollution from power plants, so I’ll toss out just this one:

“Electric utilities reported the largest air emissions of any industry sector, with 64% of
all air emissions of mercury and mercury compounds…

“While electric utilities reported the largest air emissions of any industry sector, there was
no appreciable change in air emissions of mercury and mercury compounds from electric utilities from 2002 to 2003.”

From an EPA fact sheet accompanying its release of the Toxic Release Inventory for 2003

Thursday, May 05, 2005

More on Pentagon effort to gain exemption from Clean Air Act

CQ TODAY – ENVIRONMENTMay 4, 2005 – 8:40 p.m.
Pentagon, Democrats Could Clash Over Proposed Environmental Exemptions

By Rebecca Adams, CQ Staff

The Defense Department is asking Congress to exempt it from some environmental laws because officials say they constrain the agency’s ability to protect national security. The proposal sets up a potentially bitter fight between the Pentagon and Democrats who say that the exemptions from toxic waste and clean air rules would threaten the nation’s environment.

The Senate Armed Services Committee may approve legislation next week that would exempt the Pentagon from environmental requirements, and the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to act on a similar measure on May 18. The Pentagon has not gotten any Clean Air Act exemptions before, according to Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, although though they have achieved some exemptions from parts of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“If the Pentagon request became law, people living near military bases might breathe dirtier air,” O’Donnell said. “The proposed exemption could mean more asthma attacks, premature deaths, and other health problems from pollution.”

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, opposes the Pentagon’s latest request “because it would be harmful for human health and the environment and it is not needed for the national defense,” said spokeswoman Tara Andringa.

Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the provision should be approved by his committee before the Armed Services Committee sends it to the full House for consideration. Dingell called the policies a “most curious set of misguided proposals” and argued that “there is no evidence or example where these laws have ever adversely affected military readiness.”

The Pentagon has already won the ability to circumvent some environmental rules. Lawmakers exempted the department from parts of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in previous years. That history leads environmental lobbyists to suspect that the requests are part of a broader campaign by the Pentagon to slowly chip away at environmental protections.
Pentagon officials say that Clean Air Act rules inappropriately prevent them from redeploying military aircraft that emit pollution near developed areas where pollution is already a problem. The Pentagon wants the EPA to ignore anti-pollution standards for three years when jets used in training exercises are based in areas near polluted cities. One example could be the naval base near Norfolk, Va., where the military may be considering redeploying aircraft but are stymied by the rules governing pollution caused by the jets.

The provision also would let the federal government move any civil and criminal cases against it under the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act to federal courts rather than state courts. “The federal courts are better situated to strike a proper balance between competing local and national interests,” read a section-by-section analysis of the bill.

Toxic waste regulations also would be abbreviated if the Pentagon has its way. The proposal would essentially allow the military to avoid cleaning up toxic and hazardous waste sites from bombs and other munitions on bases until the pollution drifts into the surrounding community. A number of state officials oppose this provision because it would strip them of the ability to force a cleanup.

The proposal also would essentially limit the Pentagon’s responsibility for cleaning up contamination later found on closed military sites if there are no funds for cleanup.
Pentagon officials say that their request is limited and important for national security. “We’re not trying to get blanket exemption but need some flexibility that will allow us to proceed,” said spokesman Glenn Flood.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. © 2005 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Bush Admin: We're doing a great job with mercury!

The U.S. government has responded to a complaint filed with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the group set up under NAFTA to monitor environmental progress on the North American continent. The complaint by various public interest groups charged that the U.S. government was permitting environmental damage caused by mercury pollution.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration says it’s doing a great job. More than a few of us would beg to differ! Stay tuned.

More on this at