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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clear Skies

Air Date: Week of

Republicans hope their new power in Congress will win passage of President Bush's rewrite of the Clean Air Act, his "Clear Skies" bill. But Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington that a few key Republicans favor a tougher approach to air pollution.


GELLERMAN: Republicans in Congress are in the midst of their latest--and what may be their last--push for President Bush's proposal to change the Clean Air Act.

The president calls it his "Clear Skies Initiative" and claims it will cut three of the major pollutants produced by power plants. But Clear Skies critics say simply enforcing existing laws would do a lot more to protect the public's health. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: On a snowy Earth Day nearly three years ago, President Bush laid out his vision for a new law on clean air.

BUSH: We will set mandatory limits on air pollution with firm deadlines, while giving companies the flexibility to find the best ways to meet the mandatory limits.

YOUNG: But that bill languished in Congress for years. Now a new Congress, with a broader Republican majority, is considering a new Clear Skies bill.

[SOUND: GAVEL - "Meeting will come to order"]

YOUNG: Republican Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma and George Voinovich of Ohio launched hearings on the bill Inhofe says will bring historic reductions in air pollution.

INHOFE: This is the most aggressive reduction, mandated reduction, in pollutants in the history of this country, of any president of any time.

YOUNG: Inhofe says the bill would cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—the components of soot, smog and acid rain—and the neuro-toxin mercury by 70 percent over the coming 13 years.

He claims the bill's cap and trade programs that let companies buy and sell pollution credits will make those cuts faster and cheaper than is possible with current law. That part attracted the support of major players in the power industry. Lobbyist Frank Maisano says the power companies he represents in the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council are tired of constantly fighting clean air lawsuits.

MAISANO: So, instead of sitting in court and fighting out the semantics of whether or not you're following the complexities of the Clean Air Act, we have created a cap and trade program that says either you meet a cap or you don't, and if you don't there are things you have to do--you either trade or you meet it.

YOUNG: But the senators also heard from state regulators who worry Clear Skies would take away some of their most important tools in the Clean Air Act—such as the right to take action against pollution blowing in from other states. And critics say Clear Skies would cut provisions that ensure that pollution is reduced at the power plants that most threaten public health. Frank O'Donnell of the non-profit Clean Air Watch says Clear Skies does more to help power companies than the public.

O'DONNELL: It contains loopholes, it contains protections for big polluters, and it postpones cleanup deadlines way up into the future. And, really, we can do much, much better under current law if we just enforce it.

YOUNG: Environmentalists like O'Donnell favor other clean air bills that would mandate steeper cuts in emissions in a shorter time, preventing thousands more premature deaths. Both sides have competing analyses to support their arguments and The National Academy of Sciences was asked to weigh in on some of the proposed changes. That study is not due until the end of the year but a preliminary report from the Academy says it is "unlikely that Clear Skies would result in emission limits at individual sources that are tighter" than possible under the existing Clean Air Act.

While the debate rages about which approach would best reduce the big three pollutants, a fourth emission is lurking in the legislative shadows. Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee is co-sponsor of one of the two alternate bills that would also make power plants control the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

CHAFEE: That's the threshold we have to cross when you're talking about global warming, and that's recognizing that carbon dioxide plays a part in that and, therefore, it should be regulated. And I think we can do it, regulate carbon dioxide, without adversely affecting our industries.

Chafee is a Republican member of the environment committee considering Clear Skies and without his support it's unlikely the president's bill will pass. But Senator Inhofe, the committee chair, calls global warming a hoax and says a cap on carbon dioxide would kill Clear Skies.

INHOFE: Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant I think we understand that. And while some would sacrifice these massive reductions that would be mandated for a political agenda, I think it's wrong.

YOUNG: So, this standoff on CO2 could doom one of the president's most ambitious environmental items: a rewrite of the Clean Air Act. It's something clean air advocate Frank O'Donnell finds an almost fateful twist when he considers President Bush's history with carbon dioxide.

O'DONNELL: It is ironic that in the year 2000 then-candidate George Bush pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industry. A pledge that he broke soon after he took office. And right now, that could become a poison pill ultimately to any major change in current law.

YOUNG: Hearings on Clear Skies will continue through February. The bill's political outlook remains mostly cloudy. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.



Clear Skies - EPA site

Clear Skies - White House

Sierra Club's critique of Clear Skies

Clean Air Watch

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