The Bush administration on Friday eased clean air rules to allow utilities, refineries and manufacturers to avoid having to install expensive new anti-pollution equipment when they modernize their plants.
However, lawsuits to block these changes are already in the wind, as CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports. The rollback of clean air rules is a bonanza for hundreds of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants, reports Orr.
The long-awaited regulation issued by the Environmental Protection Agency was immediately attacked by environmentalists, state air quality regulators and attorneys general in several Northeast states who promised a lawsuit to try to reverse the action.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman rejected critics' claims that the changes would produce dirtier air, saying in a statement they would encourage emission reductions by providing utilities and refinery operators new flexibility.
She said the old program has "deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution."
But as Orr reports, the Administration still faces a fight. Senator Joe Lieberman has called for EPA Administrator Whitman to resign. Attorneys general in Connecticut and New York say they're heading to court to stop the change.
In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused the administration of attacking the Clean Air Act with rules that would further degrade air quality in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states downwind from industrial plants.
"The Bush administration is again putting the financial interests of the oil, gas and coal companies above the public's right to breathe clean air," he said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly said he planned to join in a lawsuit to challenge the changes.
"Today's actions threaten the very quality of the air that we breathe," he said in a news release. "There is something fundamentally wrong when agencies charged with protecting our public health roll back our environmental laws merely for the convenience of industry."
The rule changes, which have been a top priority of the White House, are aimed at making it easier for utilities and refinery operators to change operations and expand production without installing new emission controls.
Industry has argued that the old EPA regulations known as "New Source Review" under the Clean Air Act have hindered operation and prevented efficiency improvements.
In 2001, Mr. Bush's energy task force directed the EPA to reconsider New Source Review. The changes announced Friday are the product of that review.
The new EPA regulation will allow industry to:
In addition, the agency is proposing a new way of defining what constitutes "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" — key language that helps determine when the regulations should kick in and is particularly important for aging coal-fired power plants.
The EPA plans to grant power plants, factories and refineries an annual "allowance" for maintenance. Only when expenditures rise above that allowance would an owner or operator have to install new pollution control equipment. Replacement of existing equipment would be considered maintenance.
The administration said the new maintenance treatment "will offer facilities greater flexibility to improve and modernize their operations in ways that will reduce energy use and air pollution."
However, Vickie Patton, an attorney with Environmental Defense, said the changes amount to "a sweeping and unprecedented erosion of state and local power to protect the public health from air pollution" by thousands of power plants, oil refineries and industrial facilities.
"They're going to do everything they can not only to roll these rules back at the federal level but to force states to dismantle clean air programs that have been in place for years," she said.
The changes were sought by the utility, coal and oil industries, and were the subject of months of review at the White House. The electric utility and coal industries were both major donors to Republicans for the 2002 and 2000 elections.
Electric companies and their employees contributed at least $11 million to the GOP in the 2001-02 election cycle, more than twice as much as they gave Democrats, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finance.
Coal companies and their employees made at least $1.9 million in political contributions in that period, with more than $8 of every $10 going to Republicans, the center found.
Bush's 2000 presidential campaign was also a major beneficiary of the industries' largess. Several energy executives raised at least $100,000 each for Bush's campaign, and the energy industry, including electric and mining companies, gave more than $2.8 million.
Many of the fund-raisers and donors were members of Bush's transition team, weighing in on energy and environmental policy as the president set up his administration.