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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

New Source Review

Air Date: Week of

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A battle's brewing in Washington over clean air. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon Greenbaum talks with host Steve Curwood about how the Clean Air Act might soon face changes.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may recall about a month back we talked about a Clean Air Act provision that's raising a lot of controversy. It's called New Source Review, and it requires any power plant making major modifications to upgrade its emissions controls, even if that plant was built before the Clean Air Act was passed, in 1970.

A couple of years ago, the Clinton Administration charged many of the nation's utilities with violating those rules, and since then, the utilities have argued that the regulations are too complex and that they limit their ability to produce electricity. Now, the Bush Administration is reevaluating New Source Review. I've got Anna Solomon-Greenbaum on the line now from Washington. Anna, the last time we spoke you said the results of this review were supposed to be out in the middle of August.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I did say that, that's right.

CURWOOD: And now I think it says September, and I haven't heard about any decisions. What's going on?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, the official story EPA is giving is that they postponed the New Source Review decision because they want to incorporate it into a broader plan that they're coming out with later this month, and that's what they're calling the Three Pollutant Plan. It's basically a system that would cap nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, and then establish a trading system so companies coming in under the cap could sell credits to those who maybe didn't do so well.

Officials at EPA tell me this program that they're designing will reduce emissions far more than anything in place now, and that New Source Review and some of the other Clean Air Act regulations just wouldn't be necessary anymore. But because the issue is so sensitive, they didn't want to just come out of the box saying, "No more New Source Review," or NSR as insiders call it. Here's Jeff Holmstead. He's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA.

HOLMSTEAD: We were concerned that we would be unfairly criticized if all we did was talk about NSR. Because there seems to be at least some people out there that are looking to be critical of the administration, no matter what we do on NSR, and portray that possibly as a rollback of the Clean Air Act, when that's really not what we're all about.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, tell us what the unofficial story is here.

SOLOMON- GREENBAUM: Well, it seems like what we're seeing is a split within the Bush administration. I've talked with folks at the EPA and environmental groups, Congressional aides, and they tell me the real pressure here came from the Department of Energy. Officials there weren't liking what they were seeing in EPA's draft report on New Source Review. Apparently, it wasn't as critical of the regulations as industry had hoped it would be. And Energy was also concerned about EPA's proposal for the Three Pollutant plan. It said the emissions cuts were too drastic, particularly those from mercury, and that they'd hurt energy production, that they'd hurt industry, particularly the coal-fired power plants.

CURWOOD: Well, meanwhile, what's going on with the actual plants and refineries that were charged with violating the law under New Source Review? Now, they were sued back in 1999 by the Clinton EPA, along with many of the Northeast states. I understand the Bush administration has been looking over those cases at the Department of Justice, and the idea is that they may, in fact, not continue prosecution of those cases. When will we get a final decision on that, do you think?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: They haven't set a specific date, but we do know that they're starting to feel the heat on this. We've seen Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, and that's one of the states that's filed these lawsuits that you're talking about. He's come out saying that until President Bush makes a decision about whether the feds are going to stay on with these cases, he's going to hold up the nomination of Donald Schregardus for the top enforcement position at the EPA.

Mr. Schregardus is former head of the Ohio EPA and there's been a lot of controversy over his tenure there, whether he was too lax in his enforcement. In addition, he's been opposed to these government suits against the power plants. Here's Senator Schumer.

SCHUMER: It's a crisis situation. The waters of New York are basically dying, because of a small number of power plants in the Ohio valley that spew sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide over our air. And Donald Schregardus has been one of the people who has said that the way we have of curbing those either lawsuits or legislation, is ill-advised.

CURWOOD: So, what happens if the Bush administration does drop these lawsuits?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Senator Schumer told me he thinks the state suits are probably going to collapse in that case, and people I've talked with at the Attorney General's Office in several of the Northeast states, they say the same thing. They want to press forward with the suits whether the feds are in or out, but they admit that most of their resources, both in terms of personnel and in terms of technology, are in Washington. One point worth mentioning here: I've spoken with various aides in Congress and it seems pretty clear that if the administration does follow through on these enforcement actions, there might be some willingness, even from some fairly green lawmakers, to see New Source Review be replaced by some other kind of program. But, if the administration doesn't stay on in the suits, those same members of Congress are likely to come out strongly in favor of preserving New Source Review. And this is simply for political reasons. They really have to do this if they want to avoid a huge backlash from the environmental community.

CURWOOD: Let me see if I have this right, Anna. It sounds like everybody is waiting to see what somebody else does.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: To some extent, that's the case here. We are starting to see some action from Congress, though. Again, it's not focussed as much on New Source Review; it's centered more on this multi-pollutant plan idea and what form that's going to take. You remember Bush's campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions? Well, later, of course, he went back on that. But now there are bills in both Houses to get carbon back in the mix, and these are being called Four Pollutant bills.

Probably the most interesting part of this story is that the utilities themselves are split on this. Some of them oppose any mandatory cap of any kind, but then there are others that are willing to go further than the administration itself. They say they know that carbon's going to be regulated at some point down the road. They'd rather see it regulated now, so they can know what's going to be required of them. The EPA, meanwhile, says it has no intention, at this point, of introducing any kind of mandatory carbon cap.

CURWOOD: But what about the other three pollutants, Anna? When will we see a three pollutant plan from the EPA?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, they haven't set a solid date yet, but they're saying it will come out sometime this month.

CURWOOD: Hey Anna, thanks for taking this time with us today.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.



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