Thursday, July 13, 2006

Republican senators pressure EPA on clean air standards

In case you missed it, there was an ugly scene today before the Senate subcommittee on clean air, chaired by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH).

It is the latest chapter in what has become a clash between science and politics when it comes to clean air standards.

Voinovich and four of his Republican colleagues (Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Kit Bond of Missouri, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia) launched an aggressive attack against any plan by the U.S. EPA to set tougher national air pollution standards for particle soot. Two Democratic senators (Tom Carper of Delaware and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey) argued, conversely, that air pollution was harmful and that EPA should set standards based on the best science

As you recall, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson has been criticized by many scientists and doctors (including the American Medical Association) for proposing new standards that were weaker than recommended by his career scientists and EPA’s outside science advisers. With a little more than two months left before Johnson has to announce a final decision, there are hints that he might be amenable to tougher final standards, perhaps within the upper range of that recommended by the agency’s outside advisers.

Voinovich and colleagues made it clear that they would have none of it. In a transparent and seemingly partisan attempt to apply political pressure to EPA, they argued that EPA should make no change at all to the current standards, set in 1997. They stacked witness panels largely with those who agreed with their anti-clean air views.

Inhofe plans a follow-up hearing next Wednesday, July 19, to increase the pressure of the political squeeze.

Here are a few very quick highlights from today’s soap opera, played out before a room teaming with power company lobbyists who appeared to alternate between checking their Blackberrys and listening to see if questions they had drafted were being asked:

Voinovich: “Here we go again: EPA has proposed to move the goal posts.” [The lobbyists – obviously football fans – must really have wanted this message point in there, since it was repeated by Inhofe, DeMint and Isakson.] Arguing that clean-air controls have boosted energy costs, “Every time I go home, people are screaming about their gas costs… [this has] a devastating impact on the ordinary citizen…[tougher clean air standards] “will push us into more use of natural gas.”

Voinovich also displayed a map that he conceded had been created by the American Petroleum Institute to argue his point that tougher EPA standards would require more parts of the nation to clean up.

“Maybe it’s cheaper to buy everyone an air conditioner” than reduce pollution, he said.

Inhofe: “I do not believe the science justifies ratcheting down the standards.” [Remember, this is the guy who says global warming is a “hoax.”]

Bond: “As someone who suffers from asthma, I can tell you it’s not the air, it’s the food.”

DeMint: Clean air standards “reduce our quality of life.”

Isakson: “We’re punishing the victim of second-hand pollution.” [We’ll let logicians puzzle that one out.] “No one in this room is for asthma.”

Two of the witnesses made arguments that these senators appeared not to want to hear. Conrad Schneider with the Clean Air Task Force said 10,000 fewer premature deaths a year could be avoided if Congress or EPA required tougher limits on sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Schneider argued for tougher controls on power plants and diesel engines.

John Paul of the Dayton, Ohio, air pollution control authority argued for an honest, scientific process for setting national air standards since “the public deserves to know whether the air they breathe is safe.”

One thing is clear: these Senate Republicans appear to hope that political pressure will help fend off calls for EPA to use the best science in setting particle soot standards.

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