Clouds Gather Over Future of Clear Skies

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 9, 2003 (ENS) - There is no chance the President's Clear Skies initiative will simply blow through Congress, members of both parties said at a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday on the administration's air pollution plan. Critics of the plan slammed the administration for not being forthcoming with analysis of rival legislation and said the plan rolls back existing law, while supporters raised concern that some of the bill's provisions might be too costly for industry to adopt.

"None of the necessary consensus is in place to achieve a major change in the law," said Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.

Tuesday's hearing was the first by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee on the Clear Skies plan and featured only one witness - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Jeffrey Holmstead.

"I can assure you this will not be the last hearing on this subject," said Subcommittee Chairman Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas and cosponsor of the Clear Skies legislation.

The President's air pollution plan was introduced in the last session of Congress, but no action was taken.

The proposal is "historic," Holmstead told the subcommittee, because it is the first time an administration has carefully reviewed a piece of environmental legislation and proposed to expand, modernize and "take advantage of the parts that work very well and use those to replace the parts that do not work very well." power plant

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)
The plan uses a cap and trade approach that has proven successful in reducing acid rain. Holmstead testified that Clear Skies will reduce power plant 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.

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. Some 48 tons of mercury are emitted each year from power plants.

Setting caps for these emissions and allowing industry to trade allowances in order to comply, will be more efficient and less costly than regulations under the existing Clean Air Act, Holmstead said.

It gives the industry greater certainty about the targets they must meet, he explained, and will lessen the likelihood of litigation challenging the emissions cuts.

"I can guarantee you that if you adopt Clear Skies, we will get greater environmental benefits and we will do it at the lowest possible cost," Holmstead told the subcommittee.

The President's plan, Holmstead said, ensures a long future for coal in the United States and will not cause electricity price increases that could occur under the Clean Air Act and could prompt utilities to switch to natural gas.

That view gained some traction on the committee, in particular from Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican.

Coal producing states such as Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, Shimkus said, have been "hit tremendously hard by the Clean Air Act."

"Clear Skies will lead to a cleaner environment without large increases in fuel cost and without all the doom and gloom we are hearing from the environmental community," Shimkus said.

Of particular concern to coal-fired utilities - and to environmental and public health organizations - is the plan's proposed reduction of mercury emissions. shenandoahclear

Conservationists worry about the plan's effect on air pollution that impacts national parks - even on a good day, the average summer visibility of 15 miles from Shenandoah National Park is far short of the historic average of 77 miles. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Coal fired power plants currently emit some 48 tons of mercury each year - Clear Skies sets industry caps of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018.

Critics of the plan say these targets are higher than what could be achieved under the current regulatory process, which calls for the EPA to develop a regulation using maximum available control technology (MACT). The agency has said the mercury MACT rule could reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2007.

Shimkus and others say that if the EPA proceeds with this rulemaking, utilities will switch from coal to natural gas.

"This is one of the most important things we can do to ensure against natural gas price increases," Holmstead added. "The use of coal will continue to grow under Clear Skies."

But mercury is clearly a tricky issue for the administration, as critics have latched onto the targets proposed under the MACT standard as evidence that Clear Skies does less than existing law, and as some supporters of the bill worry that new analysis shows that industry may struggle to reach the caps in the proposal.

Reaching the 26 ton mercury cap by 2010 relies on the cobenefits of technologies to cut emissions of SO2 and NOx. New analysis, however, indicates that the administration's original estimate of the cobenefit reduction of mercury emissions was too large by at least eight tons.

To get to the 26 ton figure would cost industry some $700 million to $900 million a year, Holmstead told the subcommittee.

"We continue to support the President's proposal although we do acknowledge that our analysis suggests something different than it did when we first introduced that proposal," Holmstead said. "I can guarantee you that there will be litigation about a mercury MACT standard if we need to do one."

Barton told Holmstead that the mercury issue is worth "revisiting" and indicated he would look for ways to ease the burden on industry.

"If we are going to have a market based approach, we certainly ought to have a market based approach on mercury," Barton said. "It is logical that we would set that [first phase mercury] target at where that co-benefit level is."

Critics say that the health risks of mercury - and of emissions of NOx and SO2 - merit moving more quickly than the targets under Clear Skies and contend that the existing Clean Air Act, if enforced, would produce greater reductions more quickly.

"The administration's bill would repeal, delay or gut many existing Clean Air Act requirements allowing more pollution for years longer than current law requires," said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. "The administration calls this bill the "Clear Skies Act" - that is good marketing, but this bill is terrible for air quality and should be opposed by every member of this committee."

Waxman noted that air pollution is a still serious problem for many Americans - the EPA estimates that 82 million live in areas with dangerous levels of fine particles and 133 million live in areas with high levels of ozone.

"As a public health nurse, I have serious concerns with the President's plan," said Representative Lois Capps, a California Democrat. "Rather than enforcing the Clean Air Act, the President's plan would delay current deadlines for particular areas to achieve clean air - this extension would force millions of Americans to continue to breathe unsafe air." Waxman

Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, says the administration is not providing analysis of rival air pollution plans. (Photo courtesy Representative Waxman's office)
It is not just environmentalists and public health groups that are concerned about Clear Skies, Waxman said, state pollution officials have come out against the President's plan.

"Under this bill, the motto will be 'regulate softly, but carry a big inhaler,'" added Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts

Both critics and supporters of the President's plan agree that the Clean Air Act has greatly improved air quality in the United States, and there is growing consensus that a multipollutant approach is the best way to move beyond the Act and to build on its success.

But Democrats on the subcommittee say the administration is trying to stack the deck in favor of Clear Skies by not producing requested analysis of rival plans.

"If Clear Skies really was the superior policy choice, the administration would give Congress analysis of competing proposals," Waxman said.

It is hard to "trust the administration" when it does not provide such information, Waxman said.

"The implication that the President's proposal is the only game in town, does not bode well for a thoughtful and a thorough inquiry into what changes if any need to be made to the Clean Air Act," Dingell said.