Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 5, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

NEW SOURCE REVIEW....Ah, more of the open mindedness I've come to expect from the Cornerites over at NRO:

I just couldn't bring myself to read the cover story of the New York Times Magazine yesterday. It's about how Bush is poisoning the air for his corporate friends. So here's a request to Jonathan Adler or Steve Hayward: Can you go through what's wrong with the article so I--and NRO readers everywhere--don't have to read it?

Indeed, it's best just to read the rebuttals, not the original sources themselves. Keeps your mind clear.

You know, this whole "new source review" thing that's the subject of the NYT magazine story is really pretty easy to understand. That is, the results are pretty easy to understand: if the current law were enforced properly, air pollution would go down x%. If Bush's proposals are enacted, air pollution will go down about half that much, meaning that they leave a lot more pollution in the air than if we just left things alone and enforced the laws we have now.

Here's why. Under the old rules, power companies were required to install pollution control equipment whenever they made substantial modifications to a plant. The idea was simple: plants would still be allowed to perform routine maintenance, but eventually all plants require a substantial overhaul of one kind or another, so over time every plant would come into compliance with the law.

The Bushies' counterattack was equally simple. Since they couldn't get their changes through even a Republican congress, they decided instead to simply redefine "routine maintenance" by administrative order. Instead of defining it as, say, anything that doesn't exceed .75% of the value of the plant, they decided to use a number that was just a teensy bit bigger:

The new formula would not adopt Lowrance's suggested threshold of 0.75 percent. Instead, Horinko said, utilities would be allowed to spend up to 20 percent of a generating unit's replacement cost, per year, without tripping the N.S.R. threshold.

In other words, a company that operated a coal-fired power plant could do just about anything it wanted to a $1 billion generating unit as long as the company didn't spend more than $200 million a year on the unit. To E.P.A. officials who had worked on N.S.R. enforcement, who had pored over documents and knew what it cost to repair a generator, the new threshold was absurd. "What I don't understand is why they were so greedy," said Eric Schaeffer, the former E.P.A. official. "Five percent would have been too high, but 20? I don't think the industry expected that in its wildest dreams."

The framework of new-source review would remain, but the new rules set thresholds so high that pollution-control requirements would almost never come into effect. "It's a moron test for power companies," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, a nonprofit watchdog group. "It's such a huge loophole that only a moron would trip over it and become subject to N.S.R. requirements."

So that's it. By simply changing a number the new source review requirements are essentially gutted. But don't worry: I'm sure NRO will shortly tell us how the free market will somehow get all these plants to clean up their act anyway. I can't wait to hear about it.

Kevin Drum 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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