Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Two Democratic presidential hopefuls are accusing the White House of "gutting" environmental protections, and trying to tie the administration's policy changes to recent corporate fraud scandals.
"The administration is trying to gut a critical section of the Clean Air Act," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). "The health and safety of people in my state, and a lot of other states would be put at even greater risk under the weaker standards proposed by the administration."
At issue is the New Source Review (NSR) provision of the Clean Air Act. Under NSR, any potential new source of air pollution, such as new power plant or industrial factory, has to meet strict air quality standards. Facilities constructed before the enactment of the law are exempt from those standards, unless they undergo significant renovation.
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.) has little regard for NSR.
"The New Source Review has done nothing to improve the environment," he said.
Steven Hayward of the Pacific Research Institute's Center for Environmental Studies agrees. He said he believes the law actually discourages modifications to older facilities that could improve energy efficiency or reduce pollution output because such changes would trigger an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency under NSR regulations.
"So the Bush administration decided recently to relax the cumbersome and counterproductive NSR requirements on power plants and other industrial facilities, in large part because the president's 'Clean Skies' initiative of February will reduce pollution from power plants by more than 70 percent during the next decade," Hayward said.
"It will achieve these reductions through a tradable emissions program that many environmentalists have endorsed," he added.
The "tradable emissions" program essentially limits the total amount of pollutants a company can produce, rather than setting specific limits for specific facilities or pieces of equipment.
"This flexibility lets businesses figure out the cheapest way to reduce emissions while government sticks to setting the overall emission cap at a level that guarantees that industry meets ambitious air quality goals," according to the White House.
"In such a program, the NSR regulations are archaic and an impediment to cleaner air," Hayward added.
But Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) doesn't see it that way.
"The changes clearly appear, on their face, to endanger human health," Edwards charged. "We're saying, before you make this change in the [implementation] of the law ... at least take a serious look at what it's going to do to kids with asthma, what affect it's going to have on senior citizens."
Lieberman even linked what he calls a "potential increase" in air pollution to the corporate accounting scandals publicized in recent weeks.
"At a time when we're all concerned about corporate accounting and the president just a few days ago signed a bill to crack down on deceitful or deceptive corporate accounting," he said, "it seems particularly ironic that this administration is trying to foist on us what I would call some very creative 'environmental accounting.'"
But Hayward pointed out that it was Democrats who, only last year, called for the abolition of NSR.
"Indeed, the Progressive Policy Institute, the think-tank arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, called last year for NSR regulations to be abolished under the tradable emissions program Bush has embraced," he recalled, quoting from the organization.
"NSR no longer provides any significant emissions reductions, and eliminating these NSR provisions for new sources has the potential to actually boost cleaner energy technologies," Hayward added.
Edwards, Lieberman, and 44 other senators have written President Bush, asking him to delay implementation of the Clear Skies initiative until "rigorous analysis of the air pollution and public health impact" can be completed.
Edwards threatened to attach preemptive legislation to upcoming appropriations bills if the administration moved forward. "Their answer was, basically, 'trust us.' We need more than that," he said. "If not, we will be looking for vehicles here in the Senate to stop what they're proposing."
Bond criticized that approach.
"There's absolutely no need to put a purely partisan, politically-motivated rider on the VA-HUD [appropriations] bill," he said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on VA-HUD, has said that she wants a "clean bill" with no controversial riders that would deter its passage. Bond says Senate Republicans will oppose any attempt by Edwards to add his threatened amendment to the bill.
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