'Clear Skies' For Pollution Rules?

EPA Environmental Protection Agency
The Bush administration plans to expand programs that allow industry to buy rights to pollute, moving forward with changes to the Clean Air Act that Congress has balked at passing, a newspaper reports.

The New York Times reports that while a similar pollution trading system has worked to reduce the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain, many lawmakers and environmentalists say the approach is not appropriate for the pollutants now targeted by the White House.

There is also resistance to the administration changing by fiat a law that Congress did not wish to amend, the newspaper says.

"The federal government is literally rewriting the clean air rules to give the worst actors a free pass to pollute in perpetuity," New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, said.

The Bush administration's Clear Skies Initiative had called for so-called "cap and trade" systems for three main pollutants released by fossil fuel-burning power plants. It would expand programs to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and add measures to reduce mercury.

Congress showed resistance to changing the plan.

Cap-and-trade programs set a national limit on emissions and then allow companies to choose whether to reduce emissions or buy credits from plants that do. This rewards firms that innovate first and imposes costs on those that do not.

Supporters say the system allows the market to pick the most cost-effective way to reduce pollution.

But opponents say a more traditional program of mandated reductions may be necessary to quickly reduce emissions of deadly mercury.

Power plants now emit 48 tons of mercury, and the Bush administration wants to reduce that to 15 tons. But critics say mandatory reductions imposed on mercury emissions from incinerators reduced national emissions to only 5 tons.

The emissions trading program would be one of several changes the Bush administration has made — or is considering making — to pollution laws.

This year, the Bush administration revised the Clean Air rules to allow older factories to avoid mandatory pollution controls when they make limited capital improvements to their facilities.

The Los Angeles Times reports administration officials have drafted a rule that would exempt up to 20 million acres — a fifth of all wetlands outside Alaska — of wetlands from the Clean Water Act.

Twelve states and several Northeast cities sued the EPA this fall to block the new Clean Air rules, which they argue will weaken protections for the environment and public health.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, has said EPA's revisions could lead to reduced fines and pollution controls in some key Clean Air lawsuits.

A study by a Rockefeller Family Fund project and Council of State Governments said changes in the way industrial plants are allowed to count emissions would increase by 1.4 million tons outputs of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and soot.