Senate Considers Clear Skies vs Clean Air Act

WASHINGTON, DC, May 8, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration's Clear Skies legislation received a second hearing this morning before the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety. The Bush plan is based on a cap and trade system - a government mandated cap on harmful emissions from power plants and tradeable credits for emissions over the limit. The Clean Air Act now in place is based on a regulatory approach to limiting the emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants from power plants.

The hearing centered on the role of natural gas in supplying clean energy. Senate Energy Committee Chairman James Inhofe of Oklahoma said the hearing will help lawmakers understand "the relationship of clean air requirements to natural gas supply, price levels and price volatility."


Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The Republicans on the subcommittee focused on energy supplies and pricing, but Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, showed more concern for controlling the polluting emissions produced by burning fossil fuel, be it natural gas or coal.

"This Committee's first and foremost responsibility is to assure that the nation's laws are protective of public health and the environment," Jeffords reminded his colleagues. "It is our job to set performance standards for industry that are adequately protective and wherever possible, fuel neutral. These standards should not be skewed to protect any one industry, but should encourage sustainable economic development."

But the Clear Skies proposal does not fit those criteria, Jeffords said. "The proposal seems designed to protect 40 or 50 year old coal burning power plants from any risk of having to meet modern environmental standards or needs."

Subcommittee Chair George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, focused on the increasing use of clean burning natural gas to meet the energy and environmental needs of the upcoming decades.

There is "no greater illustration of our need to harmonize our environmental and energy policies than the effects of fuel switching - from coal based generation of electricity to natural gas based generation - on our economy," Voinovich said.

He supported the Clear Skiesí market based cap and trade program for its flexibility and the certainty of its emissions reduction targets which he said will "ensure that the real emissions reductions called for in this bill can be achieved without forcing utilities to fuel switch and without forcing electricity and natural gas prices through the roof."

But Jeffords voiced "grave concerns" that Clear Skies will do a worse job than the current Clean Air Act. "Clear Skies' caps are too weak, the deadlines are too late, and state' authorities are too degraded. Because of these flaws, the bill would delay attainment in many areas, forcing millions of people to breath unhealthy air longer than the current Act allows," he said.


Senator George Voinovich of Ohio (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Voinovich pursued his concerns about fuel supplies and pricing, reminding the legislators that the Bush administration's National Energy Policy Task Force projected that over 1,300 new power plants will have to be built to satisfy Americaís energy needs over the next 20 years.

"Because of the emissions limits and regulatory uncertainty triggered by the Clean Air Act, the Department of Energy currently predicts that over 90 percent of these new plants will be powered by natural gas," he said.

Major domestic reserves of natural gas in the Rockies, off the East Coast, off the West Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, but they are off-limits for development. Large reserves of natural gas in Alaska cannot be utilitzed in the Lower 48 states without building a pipeline to carry the gas down south, Voinovich said.

Most "disturbing," he said, "we have seen a 5.6 percent decline in natural gas supplies in the continental United States in 2002 and a 2.3 percent decline in domestic natural gas production in 2002."

Voinovich said Congress is facing a "time bomb of skyrocketing natural gas and electricity prices," and called on his colleagues to enact "a comprehensive energy policy that will increase our development of natural gas supplies and ensure that we have a diverse fuel mix for electricity generation that includes nuclear, renewables, natural gas and coal."

A new comprehensive Energy Bill is currently working its way through Congress.

The Clear Skies Act (S. 485) is an example of "environmental legislation that will protect our economy," Voinovich said. "It will improve the Clean Air Act by providing greater certainty that emissions are reduced while providing a stable regulatory environment that allows utilities to install necessary pollution controls without the fear that those controls will be obsolete before they are paid for."

"It will result in cleaner air, less regulation and litigation. It will lower energy costs to manufacturers and American consumers. Simply put, this legislation will provide tremendous benefits to the environment and is crucial to the long-term survival of our economy and our manufacturing base." said Voinovich.

power plant

Virginia Electric Power Company's coal fired power plant at Mt. Storm, West Virginia, November 2000. Emissions travel across the Northeastern states. (Photo courtesy Office of New York State Attorney General)
The emission of hazardous mercury from power plants was Jeffords' main concern. "Mercury is a potent air toxic emitted by coal burning power plants. Emissions must be reduced quickly and deeply," he said.

He placed on the record a letter of concern about mercury emissions from more than 200 state and local conservation organizations and officials, and another letter from a coalition of public health and environmental organizations stating their strong support of the current Clean Air Act.

Jeffords took the Bush administration to task for not allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to run emissions and economic modelling for the Federal Advisory Committee working on the utility MACT rule. Maximum Achievable Control Technologies (MACTs), is an approach required by the Clean Air Act. MACT reflects the maximum degree of hazardous air pollution reduction that can be achieved considering the availability, current use, costs, benefits, and impacts of emissions control technologies.

The EPA is under court order to propose by December 15, 2003 and finalize by December 15, 2004 the Utility MACT rule, with controls in place by 2008.

"The administration's behavior on this issue makes me think that they don't want information in the public domain if it might show the mercury caps in Clear Skies are above what is achievable and cost-effective with today's technologies," Jeffords said. "This failure to deliver promised information looks like intentional derailing of the utility MACT rule. At the right time, I hope the court enforcing the consent decree will note the administration's bad faith on this," he said.

Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, who told the subcommittee that his state has some the nationís cleanest air and world class reserves of coal and natural gas, as well as wind resources. "We all agree that we want clean air," he said. "The disagreement is how to achieve that goal and allow for resource development."

Thomas said that EPA modeling now confirms that reducing mercury emissions from the 48 tons that the nation emits today, to 26 tons in 2010, will require more than application of controls to meet sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide requirements.

Thomas pointed to EPA modeling which projects that power plants will reduce mercury emissions by switching from sub-bituminous coal to bituminous coal. "Many will just switch from coal to natural gas," he guessed.

Jeffords said most projections indicate that new electricity generation will come from natural gas for mainly economic reasons. "Most of that generation will be for peaking power, and those natural gas facilities that are new baseload will be replacing older inefficient natural gas fired plants and not replacing coal," he said.

The testimony of today's witnesses and experts in the natural gas industry shows there will be "plenty of natural gas to meet the projected growth in demand for electricity," Jeffords said. "But, if coal wants to expand its market share beyond the current 55 percent it now enjoys and really grow, then the test is simple: produce power that meets the public health and environmental needs of America today and into the future."

Timed to coincide with these hearings and with the progression of the Energy Bill through Congress, a new broad national alliance, called Americans for Clean Air, has assailed the Bush administration's Clear Skies plan. A letter from the alliance to Congressional leaders states that "The Clean Air Act is working" and that the Bush plan "weakens the Clean Air Act in several important ways."

The alliance includes the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Steelworkers of America, and dozens of environmental and religious groups.

They wrote, "We, the undersigned health, seniors', religious, labor, civil rights, children's, parents', womens', consumer and environmental organizations strongly support the Clean Air Act and vigorously oppose legislation that will weaken or delay the implementation of the law."