Respond to this Article December 2004

Partly Sunny

Why enviros cant admit that Bush's Clear Skies initiative isn't half bad.

By David Whitman

It is hard to find a leading environmental advocate who has not denounced Clear Skies, the Bush administration's bill to reduce power-plant pollution. Clear Skies headed the Kerry campaign's list of “The Bush/Cheney Top 10 Environmental Insults,” and has been repeatedly assailed by green activists for gutting the historic Clean Air Act. Al Gore has said that Clear Skies should be renamed “Dirty Skies.” The proposal has become a prime exhibit for those who delight in examples of Bush doublespeak.

Yet this vitriol seems strangely at odds with the express goals of the legislation. Clear Skies requires utilities to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury by about 70 percent by 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency projects Clear Skies will prevent the deaths of 14,100 Americans a year—akin, in a sheer body count, to saving the life of every person who died from HIV in the United States in 2003.

By most accounts, Clear Skies would prevent more deaths than any environmental regulation since 1997 at a cost of about $6 billion a year to the utility industry. But instead of garnering broad support and sailing through Congress, this important public health measure has languished on Capitol Hill. It is now little more than a symbol of the Bush administration's craven coziness with the energy industry.

As might be expected, green advocates criticized the Bush bill and its regulatory heir, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, for failing to go far enough or fast enough in reducing pollution. But in a novel twist, environmentalists have also asserted that Clear Skies is actually weaker than the existing Clean Air Act—and would thus allow millions of tons of added pollution and inflict tens of thousands of needless deaths during the next decade. John Kerry summed up the conventional wisdom on the left during his second debate with President Bush by observing that Clear Skies is “one of those Orwellian na- mes. . . . If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today—no change—the air would be cleaner than it is if you passed the Clear Skies Act.” In fact, this oft-repeated green bromide turns out to be false. But the dispute over the bill's impact is only part of the story of how the perfect has become the enemy of the good in the clean air wars. The battle over Clear Skies has shaped up as a classic Washington tale of a creditable endeavor hopelessly mismanaged by its sponsor, demagogued by its opponents, and tainted from the start by the administration's well-earned reputation as handmaidens of industry. The resulting gridlock could delay attempts to clean up the environment and cost thousands of Americans their lives.

The soot menace

Not often do you find environmentalists and utility industry representatives sitting down at the same table, much less nearing agreement. But when George W. Bush took office in 2001, several utilities and green groups had begun to explore a groundbreaking deal. Under its terms, EPA would provide utilities with some future relief from complex and costly “new source review” rules governing the modernization of old power plants—the bane of coal-fired utilities. (New source review requires plants grandfathered under the Clean Air Act to install modern pollution-control equipment whenever upgrades or non-routine maintenance of a plant increase air pollution.) The Clinton administration had sued seven electric utilities for trying to sidestep this requirement, charging that the companies had made substantial modifications to old coal-fired plants under the guise of routine maintenance and failed to install this new technology. Many utilities had opted to go to court, but they were eager to avoid future punitive actions.

In exchange for prospective relief from new source review, the power companies were prepared to accelerate their air-pollution reductions through a market-based permit system. Even more significant, several electricity generators were, for the first time, contemplating capping emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas implicated in global warming. Reflecting the emerging consensus, seven different lawmakers had introduced multi-pollutant legislation in the House or Senate in 1999 that sought to compel utilities to cut back on such emissions, including carbon dioxide. In the 2000 campaign, Bush effectively signed on to the potential deal, pledging both to revamp new source review and to support market-based legislation to cap power plant emissions of four smokestack pollutants, including carbon dioxide. By the time he assumed office the following year, Bush appeared on the verge of achieving the clean air deal of a decade.

Green advocates saw Bush's pledge as a major advance despite his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to curb greenhouse emissions. Then, as now, the EPA did not regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant, nor did the federal government require industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. No matter who was elected, Congress was not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol anytime soon. But capping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants was a good start for environmentalists and would set an important precedent for imposing mandatory restrictions.

Yet while Bush's carbon dioxide pledge represented a political and policy breakthrough for advocates, the restriction of other emissions from power plants was a far more important public health goal in the near term. Power plants emit millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides each year, which mix in the atmosphere to form fine particle pollution, or microscopic airborne soot. Soot may not sound like a public health threat—the word summons up images of blackened chimney sweeps—but soot extracts a greater toll than smog or even global warming. The World Health Organization estimates that particle pollution cuts short the lives of 800,000 people worldwide each year. In the United States, estimates of premature death due to soot inhalation range from 50,000 to as many as 100,000 annually.

Most of those dying from respiratory and cardiac ailments triggered by soot don't just die a few hours or a day earlier than they would have otherwise; the EPA projects that the average victim has 14 years knocked off his or her life. Even more striking, the link between soot and premature mortality has been so extensively documented that EPA analyses now assume that particle pollution causes death—not merely that it is somehow “associated” with early death.

Making the market

The special danger posed by power plant pollution was not lost on those who think about these issues for a living. In 1997, the EPA had promulgated the first national air-quality standard for fine particle pollution, along with tough new ozone standards. The consensus then among environmentally-minded folks at EPA, in the White House, on the Hill, and within the movement was to restrict multiple pollutants at the same time. In particular, a group of EPA career analysts in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and at the agency's Air Office in Washington had quietly begun promoting and modeling the impacts of multi-pollutant restrictions. However, industry challenged the 1997 EPA standards, and an appeals court dominated by Reagan appointees held them up for several years. The Supreme Court finally cleared the way to proceed with the new air quality standards in February 2001, and within a few months, EPA analysts had readied an aggressive “straw proposal”—the plan they would initially bring to the bargaining table where Clear Skies would be hammered out—for reducing power plant pollution.

The most important EPA official in shaping Clear Skies was Jeff Holmstead, a Bush appointee and head of the agency's Office for Air and Radiation. While EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman was largely absent from the interagency debate that fashioned Clear Skies, Holmstead served as her point-man on the issue. An even-keeled attorney, Holmstead aggressively lobbied for the EPA's proposal in interagency meetings, steadfastly pressing for tight caps on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

While working for White House counsel C. Boyden Gray under the elder Bush, Holmstead had toiled on the Acid Rain program signed into law in 1990, which set the stage for Clear Skies by establishing a novel emissions trading program. The general concept was simple. Rather than the traditional “command and control” model of regulation, a national cap on power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide was set that dropped over time, so that by 2010, emissions would be half of what they were in 1980 or 8.95 million tons. Each year, EPA distributed pollution “allowances” to power plants for each ton of sulfur dioxide emitted that collectively added up to the national cap. These allowances could then be freely traded between utilities—enabling companies that were having trouble reducing emissions to purchase allowances from utilities that had surpluses owing to their progress in curbing pollution. Those whose total allowances were insufficient to cover their emissions at the end of the year incurred automatic hefty fines.

The Acid Rain program turned out to be a public policy success story at a fraction of its projected cost, and set a precedent for the use of emissions trading to reduce interstate air pollution. But it also marked a sharp departure from the litigation-ridden and loophole-laden procedures of the Clean Air Act, under which each state prepared its own plan for the EPA, one pollutant at a time, to regulate emissions within state boundaries. By the time Bush took office, even many environmentalists were searching for market-based “cap-and-trade” programs to curb power plant pollution rather than pursuing the traditional regimen of Clean Air Act enforcement.

Despite his support for the Acid Rain program and his steady advocacy of EPA's ambitious multi-pollutant proposal within the administration, Holmstead was soon pegged as an industry lackey during the battle over Clear Skies. He was the public face of the administration's industry-friendly campaign to dismantle new source review of old power plants, a program popular among lawyers in the EPA's enforcement division. Several of them later quit the agency in disgust and joined green advocates in routinely portraying Holmstead as a utility yes-man to reporters, an image solidified by a New York Times Magazine cover story in April 2004.

Scrubbers and mine workers

Yet if Holmstead was distrusted by some as too friendly with industry, he and the EPA were considered too close to environmental groups by those inside the White House and at the Department of Energy—both of which brimmed with former energy industry executives. Almost as soon as an interagency group formed to design Clear Skies, Energy staffers began challenging EPA's straw proposal. Unlike the soft-spoken Holmstead, his counterpart at the EPA, Energy's Frank Blake had a flair for dramatic sound bites about the damage that regulation inflicted on industry. “It became the Frank and Jeff show every week,” recalls another member of the interagency group.

When the interagency process to draft Clear Skies began in earnest in summer 2001, the key decisions in reducing fine particle pollution were how low would the sulfur dioxide cap be set, and how long would power companies have to slash emissions. The lower the cap, the more lives that would be saved. Yet low caps would also force several hundred coal-fired plants to install expensive scrubbers at a cost that would run into the billions. Blake insisted that EPA's proposed cap was so low that it would to force a number of small coal-fired plants to close, and would raise electricity prices and strain relations with the coal industry. Eventually, Blake presented an Energy Department counterproposal that would have doubled the straw proposal's cap on sulfur dioxide emissions and allowed utilities to skip phasing in larger emission reductions over time.

With their deputies stalemated in the interagency group, the agency heads sought to reach agreement at a cabinet meeting in February 2002. The meeting was apparently inconclusive, and White House officials made an executive decision to roughly split the differences between EPA and Energy's emission caps and schedules to create what now became Clear Skies.

Ironically, it was not the energy industry but a long-standing Democratic constituency—the United Mine Workers—which helped convince the White House to dilute the EPA proposal. The UMW had endorsed Al Gore in the 2000 election, but the defection of rank-and-file members had helped Bush carry heavily-Democratic West Virginia, providing Bush with his margin of victory. In the Bush White House, political guru Karl Rove tended solicitously to the union. On Aug. 23, 2001, Rove met with union president, Cecil Roberts, who complained about the ambitious emission caps in EPA's straw proposal and their potential to cause fuel-switching from coal to natural gas, costing coal-miners their jobs. In the months that followed, EPA and the Energy Department were repeatedly tasked with showing that their plans would not undercut union employment in Appalachian and Midwest states.

Then, as the cabinet meeting neared, Roberts wrote Rove to express his objections to several components of the EPA proposal, including the 2-million-ton sulfur dioxide cap in 2013. “We continue to view a sulfur dioxide target in the range of 3 to 4 million tons as reasonable,” Roberts stated in a Jan. 18, 2002, letter. “We do not support other proposals for less restrictive sulfur targets.” Almost as if on cue from the union, the White House scaled back and stretched out the EPA proposal, capping sulfur dioxide emissions at 4.5 million tons in 2010 and 3 million tons in 2018. The result was a somewhat watered-down version of the EPA's hard-charging proposal that split sulfur dioxide reductions into two phases, but still mandated a 70 percent reduction of emissions by 2018.

Even thus scaled back, Clear Skies still required power plants to make reductions in air pollution that went far beyond the cutbacks required by the existing Acid Rain program. Yet when Bush unveiled Clear Skies on Valentine's Day in February 2002, his plan earned few plaudits. It came too late: The politics of clean air legislation had changed irrevocably. Any goodwill on the part of environmentalists had been lost, and a narrative had been set in the media which made Bush a champion of polluters.

The grand compromise that had seemed in the offing in 2000—relaxing new source review rules in exchange for mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions—was in tatters. Less than 60 days into office, Bush abruptly reneged on his campaign promise to cap power plant emissions of carbon dioxide at the behest of the coal industry. Taken in tandem with the administration's public renunciation of the Kyoto Protocol, the policy reversal meant that Bush had effectively abandoned the goal of ultimately reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

For environmentalists, the sticking point on Clear Skies wasn't the sulfur dioxide caps, or even the administration's plan to gradually cut power plant mercury emissions through a cap-and-trade scheme, instead of mandating steep reductions at each coal-fired plant. Clear Skies' overriding failure was rather its lack of a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Utilities had to make massive, decades-long investments to install new pollution controls to simultaneously reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emissions. The odds that power plants would then roll over and willingly install billions of dollars of separate carbon dioxide controls were close to nil.

The absence of a carbon dioxide cap soon set off an intractable stalemate in Congress. The Bush administration flatly refused to consider carbon caps, while Democrats and environmentalists were just as adamant that multi-pollutant legislation had to include carbon dioxide restrictions. But Bush's bow to the coal industry—and the fact that power generators agreed to back much of the Clear Skies bill after Bush abandoned his carbon dioxide campaign pledge—tainted every aspect of the bill as a shameless sop to industry.

To make matters worse, the administration made the politically foolhardy decision to release its toothless climate change policy at the same time as Clear Skies. (The climate change policy called for industry to voluntarily slow the growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions). The White House had gambled that the significant advance represented by the clean air proposal would help offset criticism of a lame global warming policy.

Instead, as so often happens, the resulting attacks on the climate-control policy tainted Clear Skies, convincing environmentalists that the administration was not serious about curbing industry emissions. The entrenched opposition of green groups was strategic in part—rather than acknowledge the benefits of Clear Skies, key environmental leaders chose to attack the administration's bill in hopes of securing a “concession” on carbon dioxide restrictions. Politicians, less-savvy advocates, and rank-and-file supporters followed suit, without much of an idea of what Clear Skies would and would not do.

By the spring of 2002, most green groups had given up trying to work with Bush. Instead, the eco-advocates were looking for evidence to expose the administration's campaign to protect polluters. They soon got it. Or at least it seemed that way.

Green monsters

Shortly after Bush unveiled Clear Skies, an internal EPA PowerPoint presentation from September 2001 surfaced that contained an incriminating slide. The slide suggested, by implication, that the Bush plan actually did allow more air pollution than the existing Clean Air Act. If true, Clear Skies was worse than inadequate—it was a dangerous, dishonest bill that the EPA itself knew would result in more deaths and pollution than the current law. All of the fears of environmentalists seemed confirmed. And they reacted with outrage.

A Who's Who of green groups denounced Clear Skies for weakening existing law in 2002 and 2003, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Environmental Trust. Once it became green gospel that Clear Skies allowed more pollution than the Clean Air Act, politicians and advocates felt free to snicker at the Bush proposal. The president's “absurdly named 'Clear Skies Initiative,'” wrote National Resources Defense Council president John H. Adams, “would allow 50 percent more sulfur emissions and hundreds of thousands of additional tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides into our air.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called Bush's plan the “Clear Lies Initiative.”

Environmental legislation that created more deadly pollution was indeed morally vacuous—and it wasn't long before religious eco-advocates started assailing Clear Skies. In April 2004, the National Council of Churches wrote Bush to express their “grave moral concern about your 'Clear Skies' initiative. . . . Scientific estimates, some by the federal government itself, cause us to question whether this 'Clear Skies' proposal meets fundamental moral responsibilities as set out by the Bible.” Al Gore joined the green chorus, accusing the Bush administration of using “Orwellian language to disguise their true purposes. . .a policy that vastly increases the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the air is called the 'Clear Skies Initiative.'”

There was only one flaw in the advocates' assault. Clear Skies didn't increase the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the air. A closer look at the leaked EPA document that started the firestorm shows that it was misleading. In their efforts to assuage power industry fears about Clear Skies, EPA officials had been too cute by half—overstating their case and never imagining that their presentation could fall into the hands of environmental critics.

The PowerPoint slide in question came from a 24-page series of charts, maps, timelines, and bulleted text that a small group of EPA analysts and officials presented to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group, exactly one week after the attacks of September 11. EPA policy analysts were hungry to stake out a tough bargaining position with the power industry. For the staff, the overriding aim of the EEI briefing was to make sure that the utility industry would buy into aggressive multi-pollutant legislation. The alternative, EPA feared, was that utilities would attempt to delay pollution reductions by using the Clean Air Act to pursue the traditional state-by-state approach to individually curtail sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

The EPA presentation included a number of charts comparing the preliminary EPA multi-pollutant “straw proposal” to “business-as-usual” enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Essentially, the EPA folks rigged the presentation to make their new approach to pollution-reduction look like the far better deal for industry. In order to compare what would happen under Clear Skies with what would take place under the Clean Air Act, the analysts used some fuzzy math: They simply plugged in emission caps in the Clean Air Act scenario similar to those in the agency's straw proposal, without undertaking serious analysis of what steps the states might actually take under the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution. This mock comparison appeared to toughen the existing law's requirements, making the straw proposal alternative $3 billion cheaper for power plant companies. One EPA career official who helped prepare the EEI presentation says the agency basically “created the business-as-usual scenario [of what would happen under the Clean Air Act] out of whole cloth. To be honest, we wanted to scare the hell out of the utility industry.”

But EPA's attempt to bluff industry representatives roundly backfired. The EEI representatives at the briefing saw through the scam, scoffing at EPA's business-as-usual projections—and then the briefing charts leaked. The presentation had never been intended for public consumption. And as it turned out, the slide summarizing the business-as-usual scenario provided a wildly optimistic rendering of the implementation of existing law. One EPA analyst jokingly described the idealized emissions caps as a “wet dream scenario.” It's true that the Clean Air Act as originally enacted cracks down on polluters by providing a tight enforcement regimen and has prompted states to slowly reduce pollution over the last several decades. All too often, however, the law has led the federal government to set unrealistic deadlines and standards, resulting in multi-year extensions for states and litigation-driven delays. After the briefing charts became public, the Bush administration tried in vain to counteract the misleading PowerPoint slide show with its own full-dress analysis comparing Clear Skies to the Clean Air Act. This official analysis (which, for several reasons, overstated Clear Skies' benefits) suggested the Bush bill would reduce utility emissions by 35 million more tons than the Clean Air Act over the next decade.

But the damage was done. The administration never managed to recover from the false impression that EPA itself believed Clear Skies weakened existing law. “All of us who worked on Clear Skies assumed that as soon as the president announced the proposal environmental groups would jump on it and say it didn't go far enough, quick enough—that was a fair debate,” says Holmstead. “But all of us were also completely unprepared for the charge that we were gutting the Clean Air Act. In our view, that accusation was pretty dishonest.”

Mild forecast

It was bad enough that green groups dismissed Clear Skies en masse as worthless or even harmful. Advocates soon compounded the policy gridlock by setting impossible standards for a pollution reduction strategy that they would accept. They did this by playing a shell game about the requirements of existing law. The environmentalists' were obviously in danger of having their bluff called: If the existing Clean Air Act was sufficient, no new legislation was required. So the advocates switched horses, saying that the EPA's ambitious straw proposal, not the business-as-usual scenario, embodied the emission cutbacks required by the Clean Air Act. Yet according to EPA staffer John Bachmann, who helped craft the straw proposal, the plan was never intended to substitute for existing law or be released as some kind of official initiative. Its purpose, instead, was to “start negotiation. This was our opening bargaining position, and you start with an aggressive bargaining position or you get a weaker deal.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group all championed the straw proposal, alleging on SaveTheCleanAirAct.org that it “speaks volumes about the minimum reductions in power plant sulfur dioxide and NOx needed to comply with the current Clean Air Act.” Sens. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) offered a Democratic alternative to Clear Skies that was even more radical than the straw proposal and imposed expensive caps on carbon dioxide emissions. A 2004 analysis of the bill, funded by the environmental group Clear the Air, found that it would cost about $34 billion annually by 2020, triple the cost of the straw proposal.

The hitch with the straw proposal was that at the time of the EEI presentation, the EPA had not assessed whether it was realistic to require power companies to install several hundred sulfur dioxide scrubbers by the hypothetical deadlines spelled out in the preliminary plan. When EPA staff later analyzed the feasibility of Clear Skies' (much looser) emissions caps, they concluded that there was barely enough time in the first phase of the bill to recruit skilled boilermakers to install scrubbers, much less get needed permits for landfills and other procedural requirements. “Early on,” says Bachmann, “we became convinced that we couldn't do the straw proposal.” That was unfortunate, because the straw proposal would have saved about 5,000 more lives a year when implemented than the Clear Skies legislation. Here, the enviros raised an important point: Larger pollution reductions than those envisioned in Clear Skies were cost effective and might reasonably be achieved with a more drawn-out schedule. That debate, over how fast and how far to cut emissions, was the right battle to have over Clear Skies. But it was not the battle that prevailed in Washington.

The thin green line

The response of environmental advocates to Clear Skies is not altogether surprising, given the movement's loathing for Bush and his appointees, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of industry lobbyists. Yet for many years, green advocates have often shown a self-destructive intolerance for compromise. Many activists chastised Al Gore when he was vice president for his environmental record, though Gore was the most informed and committed environmentalist to ever fill the vice presidency. (In 1999, Time ran an article in its Earth Day issue with the headline “Is Al Gore a Hero or a Traitor?”) Ultimately, the environmental movement's intense pressure to hold ranks—call it the thin green line—precluded honest debate about Clear Skies.

Just one environmental organization, the Adirondack Council, testified in support of Clear Skies. For its efforts, the Adirondack Council was promptly named the “Clean Air Villain of the Month” in April 2002 by the Clean Air Trust, a hall of shame award ordinarily bestowed on big polluters and their industry-friendly lawmakers. The Clean Air Trust singled out the Adirondack Council for censure in part because it had “broken ranks with other environmental groups.” Yet the Adirondack Council was no industry shill. It had sued EPA to stiffen the agency's 1990 Acid Rain program guidelines, and testified before Congress that the timetable for Clear Skies' emission caps should be sped up. The non-profit favored Clear Skies because the bill mandated large reductions in the two primary pollutants contributing to the acid rain that had riddled the Adirondack Park. To other advocates, however, that was no excuse for dissent. In another instance, Sen. Thomas Carper (R-Del.) subsequently tried to broker the legislative logjam between the Bush administration and Sen. Jeffords by offering a compromise bill that lowered the pollution caps in Clear Skies but also capped carbon dioxide emissions. Carper, too, was named the Clean Air Villain of the Month.

If there were lingering doubts about the thin green line, they vanished in April 2003 after the EPA released its proposed rule to cut harmful emissions from off-road diesel vehicles (e.g., tractors, bulldozers, backhoes, etc.), a change that would reduce fine particle pollution by curtailing diesel soot and nitrogen oxide emissions. This rule may be the only Bush administration clean-air measure that environmentalists have consistently praised. Many environmentalists had long sought aggressive regulation of off-road diesel engines; finally, here was a Bush initiative that green activists could support.

The moment of consensus ended abruptly, however, when the Natural Resources Defense Council made a public relations faux pas, issuing a press release that was too complimentary, calling the proposal, “the biggest public health step since lead was removed from gasoline more than two decades ago.” Green groups pounced. In his “In the Loop” column, The Washington Post's Al Kamen reported that “other enviro groups were apoplectic, saying that the compromise [EPA] proposal was a perfectly fine and important initiative, but the NRDC's effusive praise would cripple environmentalists' efforts to criticize the administration's overall, far-from-perfect record.” NRDC soon removed the offending press release from its Web site, and in June of that year, the organization sent EPA administrator Whitman a “corrected”—and less effusive—statement of support for the off-road proposal.

Bush, enviro

It could be argued that the Bush administration's record in reducing soot and smog pollution is surprisingly strong. Though the administration came to power with a reputation as environmental despoilers, it went to the Supreme Court to defend Clinton's 1997 air quality standards against industry challenges. It maintained all of the Clinton administration regulations to reduce diesel soot and nitrogen oxide emissions, and continued prosecuting the controversial Clinton-era new source review cases against power companies (although it did subsequently bring new enforcement actions and investigations to a virtual halt). It issued its own groundbreaking rule to reduce harmful emissions from off-road vehicles. And it proposed legislation to cut power plant pollution by nearly 70 percent.

Nevertheless, by December 2003, the administration realized that Clear Skies wasn't going to make it through Congress and dropped the proposal in favor of a fallback option, the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). Swapping a legislative effort for the regulatory route allowed Bush to avoid Congress and strip out provisions that environmentalists objected to on new source review and mercury standards. CAIR, however, is significantly more vulnerable to court challenges than Clear Skies would have been (it is easier to bring a challenge to regulations than to enacted law) and will undoubtedly be held up, not unlike the Clinton administration's 1997 air quality standards.

By all rights, green groups should have gotten behind CAIR. It established a cap-and-trade system to reduce interstate air pollution in 29 Eastern states and D.C. and set emissions caps similar to Clear Skies, requiring states to cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by about 70 percent in the next 10 years. By 2015, the CAIR rule will prevent 13,000 early deaths and save $80 billion each year. With the exception of the 1997 air quality standards, the new EPA proposal is projected to save more lives than any air pollution regulation issued by the Clinton administration.

Yet when the EPA unveiled CAIR, environmental organizations were uncharacteristically silent. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, and the Sierra Club did not put out a single press release lauding the initiative. A few advocates let their anti-Bush critique run on auto-pilot. (CAIR “will do more than add insult to injury,” said Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air, in a statement. “It will heap injury upon the injured.”) And the administration made it easy for them, repeating their earlier mistake from the Clear Skies introduction by jointly releasing CAIR and a new mercury rule that would reduce mercury emissions through a cap-and-trade scheme instead of mandatory plant-by-plant restrictions. Not surprisingly, the mercury proposal got all of the attention—most of it negative—and served to cement the administration's image as anti-environment. Today, the Clean Air Interstate Rule is still virtually unknown, despite its vast potential public health implications.

A breathtaking bet

In the 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, his classic study of how the perfect becomes the enemy of the good in Washington. Moynihan detailed a self-defeating process that followed a series of predictable steps. First, a president proposes an uncharacteristically generous program. The president's foes attack the program ferociously, instead of being encouraged by the unexpected show of support from the White House. For advocates, the perceived inadequacy of the reform plan becomes so intolerable that they announce they prefer the current system to a new one. Next, some of the president's traditional allies turn on him. In the last stage, a strange-bedfellow coalition of liberals and conservatives torpedoes the legislation for opposite reasons. Afterwards, perhaps decades later, the advocates look back with a hint of wistfulness on the reform that got away.

The battle over clean air policy is well on its way to replicating the process outlined by Moynihan. Libertarian allies of the administration, such as the Property Research and Environment Center, have recently blasted Clear Skies and CAIR as burdensome, costly regulation. Major power companies in the Utility Air Regulatory Group are balking at the emissions cuts the administration had proposed and have opposed CAIR as a “premature” proposal that circumvents the Clear Air Act's state-by-state approach. In the spring of 2004, the industry trade association quietly requested that the administration abandon its effort to regulate interstate transport of air pollution through CAIR, in favor of letting each state propose its own plan. And so the process has bizarrely come full circle—with the utilities now asserting that all EPA needs to do is follow the mandates of the Clean Air Act.

The best that can be said about the Clear Skies debacle is that it may not end as a case study in futility. If the administration lives up to its word, CAIR will be finalized later this year and power companies will face new curbs on pollution—or at least until the regulation is challenged in court. But there's also cause to think that the three-year stalemate over Clear Skies will prove costly. The congressional gridlock has given utilities an excuse to delay the time-consuming prep work for installing hundreds of new sulfur dioxide scrubbers; between 2002 and 2003, deadly sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants actually increased by four percent.

With Bush's reelection and the Republican control of Congress refortified, it's clear that the environmentalists' hope that Congress would soon enact carbon dioxide restrictions on power plants was a pipe dream. Already, Bush aides are saying that the administration will press for Clear Skies again in the second term. But starting over with legislation in 2005 will make it all but impossible that lawmakers can commit to the fast timetable for reducing emissions that advocates favored in 2002. The calculus is simple but brutal: Delays in the clean-up of power plant pollution mean thousands more Americans die needlessly. In Bush's first term, green groups gambled they could get far more sweeping reforms than Clear Skies. In the second term, that gamble—to use the parlance of clean air advocates may prove a breathtaking bet.

David Whitman is an Alicia Patterson fellow and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.


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