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Study: Clean Air law better than Bush plan

Utilities criticize comparisons

Jeff Nesmith - Staff

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Washington --- The Bush administration has argued that its proposed "Clear Skies Initiative" would reduce pollution from electric power plants "better and faster" than current provisions of the Clean Air Act. A lengthy Energy Department study, however, finds otherwise.

The study of air pollution enforcement strategies was completed by analysts at the Energy Information Administration in December 2000. It remained available Monday on the Web site of the EIA, a research branch of the Energy Department.

In announcing his "Clear Skies Initiative" last month, Bush said he was "absolutely confident [it] will bring better and faster results in cleaning up our air."

The president's plan would set national limits for sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, two pollutants that escape by millions of tons a year from power plants. Utilities would be allowed to buy and sell rights to pollute, as long as the national caps were met.

The two pollutants cause acid rain and health problems, leading to thousands of premature deaths in America every year.

The White House says that if Congress amends the Clean Air Act to include the Clear Skies plan, sulfur dioxide pollution would be reduced from 11 million tons to 3 million tons per year by 2018. Nitrogen oxides emissions would drop from 5 million tons a year to 1.7 million tons, the administration says.

However, the Energy Department study said that if current rules were enforced at all coal-fired power plants, sulfur dioxide pollution would decrease to 1.9 million tons in 2020 and nitrogen oxide emissions to 1.62 million tons.

"There is mounting evidence that simply enforcing the current Clean Air Act would lead to cleaner air more quickly than the so-called Clear Skies Initiative, which would merely delay cleanup," said Frank O'Donnell, director of the Clean Air Trust, a Washington-based environmental group.

But Washington lawyer Scott Segal, who represents a group of electric utilities including the Atlanta-based Southern Co., questioned the accuracy of the comparison.

"The assumption you have to make is that everybody would agree that the law would apply to all facilities," Segal said. "You have to assume that every company in America would not dispute EPA's application of the law and would capitulate."

The Energy Department study assumed industry-wide enforcement of "new-source review," a provision that requires owners old electric power plants to install new pollution controls when the plants are significantly upgraded.

The provision has been at the heart of a struggle pitting environmental and health groups against the White House and a group of Southern and Midwestern power companies.

Southern Co. and other utilities were sued in 1999 by EPA and several New England states, which said they had skirted the new source review provision by treating major plant upgrades as routine maintenance.

Some of the companies complained that EPA's treatment of the new source review provision was so unpredictable that they could not plan routine maintenance for their old plants without risking loss of the Clean Air Act exemptions. They lobbied the White House for relief from enforcement of new source review.

Enforcement of the provision has been effectively halted by recommendations issued by a White House energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Despite industry protests, the Energy Department analysis said enforcing new-source review would not cause power companies to close down more than a handful of plants.

-- (Dumbya the traitor @ ruining. our country), March 26, 2002

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