EPA Unveils New Analysis of Clear Skies Proposal

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 2, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration struck back at critics of its plan to reduce air pollution Tuesday, releasing new analysis of the "Clear Skies" program that shows higher health benefits than previously estimated.

But environmentalists say the new analysis is fundamentally flawed and reflects the administration's concern that opposition is building to its proposal.

"The administration is desperate to salvage a failing product," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust. "This new analysis is nothing more than a political statement."

According to the administration, Clear Skies will reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury by some 70 percent by 2018, and will achieve these benefits more efficiently than existing law. It does not call for reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) - industry groups and the Bush administration are loathe to support any mandatory cuts in C02, which most scientists believe is a leading contributor to global warming.

The new analysis, released Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), incorporates the most recent air quality data, census information, and modeling techniques.

EPA said its improved figure includes benefits from planned state and federal measures and new assumptions about senior citizens, who face higher risk from air pollution.

The analysis finds that Clear Skies' health benefits are higher than previously estimated and that the nation would come close to full attainment for the national fine particle standard based on the benefits of Clear Skies, the administration's proposed off-road diesel rule and additional existing requirements. sky

There is considerable debate over the effectiveness of the Bush administration's plan to reduce air pollution. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto.com)
Current annual emissions of SO2, a leading cause of acid rain and soot, are some 11 million tons. Some five million tons of NOx, the leading contributor to smog, are emitted annually from power plants. Power plants emit some 48 tons of mercury each year.

The plan's NOx and SO2 requirements affect all fossil fuel-fired electric generators greater than 25 megawatts, and mercury requirements affect only coal-fired electric generators greater than 25 megawatts.

The analysis reaffirms that Clear Skies will reduce air pollution while "cost-effectively helping to ensure that we have a reliable, affordable supply of electricity along with cleaner air," said Jeffrey Holmstead, EPA's Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation.

The EPA estimates the annual cost of Clear Skies will be some $6.3 billion, but it could achieve health benefits of some $110 billion by 2020. Early analysis had shown benefits of $93 billion by 2020.

"Our updated modeling incorporates the best scientific and technical information available, and shows us how imperative it is for the Congress to enact Clear Skies this year," Holmstead said.

But the legislative future for Clear Skies is cloudy. Several senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, have vowed to contest any plan that does not include mandatory reductions of CO2.

A rival plan, proposed by Delaware Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat, appears to be gaining support - the bill includes limits on CO2 and would reduce pollution of SO2, NOx and mercury more quickly and with greater health benefits than Clear Skies.

By 2018, Clear Skies is projected to have reduced SO2 emissions to three million tons, NOx emissions to 1.7 million tons and mercury emissions to 15 tons.

By contrast, the Carper bill is projected to reduce SO2 emissions to 2.25 million tons by 2015, NOx emissions to 1.7 million tons by 2012, and mercury emissions to 10 tons by 2013.

The EPA's analysis of Carper's bill finds it would achieve benefits of some $140 billion by 2020 at an annual cost of $8.7 billion.

Environmentalists say it is a vast improvement over Clear Skies, but some find a few troubling provisions in the legislation.

O'Donnell says the bill would roll back pollution standards for new power plants, weaken the New Source Review program and eliminate some of the current health protections for local communities from power plant emissions.

State officials share these concerns, says Bill Becker, executive director of State Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. coal

Coal-fired power plants are a leading source of air pollution in the United States, but also a key source of energy. (Photo courtesy New Mexico Solar Energy Association)
Becker said that although the Clean Air Act has worked "wonderfully well" to reduce pollution, there is a need multi pollutant legislation to build on its success.

"We could be doing a lot more than we are doing now," Becker said. "It is time that to move on and we think multi pollutant legislation will actually help industry by providing more certainty."

"But if we had a choice between Clear Skies and nothing, we would take nothing," Becker said.

Much of the power plant industry, however, is squarely behind Clear Skies.

"Clear Skies is responsible public policy," said Jim Owen, spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a lobbying group that represents some 70 percent of the publicly owned electricity generation companies in the United States.

The Clean Air Act has done much to clean up the air over the past three decades, Owen said, but has become overly bureaucratic and difficult to implement. The industry is keen on a multi-emissions approach, he added, that balances air pollution targets with the ability of power companies to continue producing cheap, reliable energy.

"We have reached a regulatory and legal gridlock with overlapping and duplicitous rulemaking and regulations," Owen said. "Regulatory certainty is the goal and that is the exactly the opposite of what you get under the Clean Air Act."

Although environmentalists are quick to point out the industry's close ties to the Bush administration, Owen says there is nothing sinister or secret about his organization's support for the President's plan or its lobbying efforts to drum up support on Capitol Hill.

"We are doing what every other group and industry does," Owen said.

But O'Donnell is convinced Clear Skies compromises public health and environmental protection, and said this latest analysis by the EPA shows that the administration is "comfortable doctoring information for political purposes."

The analysis is done as if the Clean Air Act does not exist, O'Donnell said, and includes benefits from the proposed nonroad diesel rule that might never materialize.

"The analysis shows differences between their plan and a false future," he said.

If the administration was serious about reducing air pollution it would start by enforcing the Clean Air Act, O'Donnell added.

Analysis of mandates in the Clean Air Act for reductions to SO2, NOx and mercury, indicate that those mandates would reduce pollution emissions more quickly than Clear Skies.

Enforcing the Clean Air Act, according to EPA, would result in SO2 emissions of two million tons annually by 2010, would reduce NOx emissions to two million tons by 2012 and could mandate a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2007.