WASHINGTON, DC, February 28, 2003 (ENS) - The Clear Skies initiative, an air quality plan architected by President George W. Bush, was reintroduced in Congress Thursday. It drew immediate criticism from Democrats who vowed to fight the administration's market centered approach to reducing air pollution from power plants.
Environmentalists and public health advocates say an analysis with data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates Clear Skies could mean more than 100,000 unnecessary premature deaths between now and 2020, deaths that would be avoided if the current Clean Air Act was enforced.
"I will do everything in my power to stop a bill that puts polluters ahead of people," said North Carolina Senator John Edwards, a Democrat and a declared 2004 candidate for President.
A cap and trade program for pollutants, Clear Skies is modeled on the 1990 Clean Air Act's acid rain program, the nation's first such effort. It is intended to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury more quickly and efficiently than the current law, the administration says.
"Clear Skies represents cost effective pollution reductions that make sense for the environment and the economy," said President Bush in a prepared statement.
Passage of the Clear Skies bill is "a top environmental priority of this administration," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.
"It is also an essential component of our goal to dramatically improve the environment while promoting energy security and independence," she said. "Almost immediately following its passage into law, Clear Skies would generate health and environmental benefits from reduced air pollution."
But key Congressional Democrats counter nearly every claim the administration makes about its plan. Clear Skies, say Democrats, environmentalists and public health advocates, will do far less to reduce pollution than the enforcement of the current Clean Air Act, and it does not address the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant heat trapping greenhouse gas.
The bill is a "legislative nonstarter" said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut who has thrown his hat in the 2004 presidential ring.
The legislation was introduced Thursday in the Senate by Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma and George Voinovich of Ohio, both Republicans. Representatives Joe Barton of Texas and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, also Republicans, introduced the legislation in the House.
Clear Skies is the "most aggressive presidential initiative in history to reduce power plant emissions," said Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The initiative's supporters say that imposing caps for emissions of the three pollutants will give companies incentives to begin reducing emissions immediately to generate credits.
Implementation of Clear Skies, Whitman said, will "dramatically reduce harmful emissions from power plants by 70 percent from current levels."
Still, analysis of mandates in the current Clean Air Act for reductions to SO2, NOx and mercury, indicate that enforcing those requirements would reduce pollution emissions more quickly than the cap and trade plan in the Clear Skies legislation.
For example, current annual emissions of SO2, a major cause of acid rain, are some 11 million tons. Clear Skies caps emissions of S02 at 4.5 million tons by 2010, and three million tons by 2018.
Enforcing the Clean Air Act, according to the EPA, would result in SO2 emissions of two million tons annually by 2010.
Some five million tons of NOx, a component of smog, are emitted annually from power plants. Clear Skies caps these emissions at 2.1 million tons in 2008 and 1.7 million tons in 2018.
EPA estimates that the Clean Air Act would reduce NOx emissions to two million tons by 2012.
Power plants emit roughly 48 tons of mercury each year, emissions that Clear Skies caps at 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018. But provisions of the Clean Air Act could mandate a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2007.
Eight percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies, according to government data. Coal fired power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury, emitting some 33 percent of the nation's total.
Critics further complain that Clear Skies repeals deadlines for state compliance with federal air standards, adds loopholes for power plants to ignore mandated technology upgrades, and prohibits downwind states from pursuing any pollution reductions from power plants in upwind states before 2012.
It will gut the Clean Air Act, said John Kirkwood, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, a public health advocacy group.
"The administration is currently focused on attempts to avoid implementation of existing clean air regulations," Kirkwood said. "The administration bill threatens public health by delaying pollution cleanup required by simply enforcing the current law."
"The Clear Skies Act is wrongly named, because this legislation is full of dark clouds." Lieberman said. "Every time we see the administration's plan to clean our air, it gets weaker."
Lieberman said he will seek to compromise with supporters of the legislation, but said he would not budge on the need to include reductions of CO2 emissions or the principle that the final plan should move beyond the Clean Air Act requirements.
Power plants are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. C02 emissions. Lieberman and others have introduced legislation that would set limits on power plant emissions of this greenhouse gas, as well as tighter limits for the three pollutants addressed by Clear Skies.
The administration has rejected moves to mandate emissions reductions for C02, preferring to call for industries to voluntary reduce emissions.
Industry groups hailed the reintroduction of the plan, which they believe is a more sensible and efficient approach to emissions reductions than the system presently in place.
The current regulatory approach is plagued with problems that threaten the reliability and affordability of the nation's electric supply, said Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents companies that collectively produce some 70 percent of electricity generated in the United States.
"This is our chance to break the litigation logjam by adopting a more rational approach to regulation," Kuhn said, but he warned that Clear Skies is still a "very aggressive proposal."
"While our industry supports the overall scope and framework of the initiative," said Kuhn, "it must be pointed out that these requirements would be extremely difficult for some companies to meet."
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