Bush's Clear Skies plan falls short, critics say

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The Bush administration Thursday released two proposals for reducing air pollution, but neither promises to adequately protect the air quality of national parks or the health of the American people, according to Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association in Clinton, Tenn.
   The Bush proposal for reducing power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming, calls for "voluntary cutbacks" and sets neither firm limits nor deadlines for achieving these cutbacks, he said.
   "The administration has folded on carbon dioxide thanks to pressure from coal companies and utilities that burn coal. It is a major failing," he said.
   The carbon dioxide plan is supposed to serve as an alternative to the 1997 international agreement negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, and developed by 180 nations to reduce greenhouse gases. The Kyoto pact commits industrial nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels. The pact was signed by the Clinton administration but not ratified by the Senate.
   Last year, President Bush backed out of the treaty, saying it would cost the U.S. economy $400 billion and 4.9 million jobs. A previous accord on carbon dioxide reduction, ratified by the Senate in 1992 and signed by President George Herbert Walker Bush, called for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Today, the nation is 14 percent above 1990 levels, according to the association.
   The Bush plan would slow growth in carbon dioxide emissions but would not reduce it, according to Kiernan. "This approach is a dereliction of government responsibility for protecting the American people," he said.
   According to the association, another Clear Skies proposal call for limits on mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, but allows companies to exceed the limits by buying credits from companies that reduce emissions below the limits. However, the reduction targets set by the plan for these gases is a rollback of reductions already being achieved under the present Clean Air Act, which would reduce the gases more than the Bush plan calls for and do it six years earlier.
   "We need dramatic reductions in these emissions to turn around the ongoing pollution of our national parks," said Don Barger, southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "This plan is quite simply a huge step in the wrong direction."
   According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clear Skies Initiative cuts power plant emissions of the three worst air pollutants -- nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury -- by 70 percent. It also commits America to cutting greenhouse gas "intensity" by 18 percent over the next 10 years -- the equivalent of taking 70 million cars off the road.
   Under the initiative:
   * Sulfur dioxide emissions would be cut by 73 percent, from current emissions of 11 million tons to a cap of 4.5 million tons in 2010 and 3 million tons in 2018.
   * Nitrogen oxides would be reduced 67 percent from current emissions of 5 million tons to a cap of 2.1 million tons in 2008 and 1.7 million tons in 2018.
   * Mercury emissions would be cut 69 percent -- the first-ever national cap on mercury emissions -- from current emissions of 48 tons to a cap of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018.
   EPA says the initiative uses a "proven market-based approach" to protect the health of the American public, wildlife and ecosystem health. This "cap-and-trade," which would set mandatory ceilings on total industry output, yet allow companies to earn and trade credits for pollution reduction, would replace "a cycle of endless litigation."
   The initiative also would save as much as $1 billion annually in compliance costs that are passed along to American consumers and uses the Clean Air Act as a model to encourage new and cleaner pollution control technologies, according to EPA.
   Great Smoky Mountains National Park could be adversely affected by these proposals, according to National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization. For the past three years, the organization has placed Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a list of the top 10 most endangered parks. From haze to smog to acid rain, air pollution threatens not only park resources but visitors as well, the group said. The park now has plans to monitor mercury levels in the Smokies.
   "We're especially concerned that the administration will replace current Clean Air Act provisions with weaker measures that will increase air pollution," Kiernan said. "Upcoming revisions to the New Source Review program, which covers upgrades in power plants, will worsen air quality in the parks."
   The Southern Alliance For Clean Energy in Knoxville said the White House plan to "streamline" air quality standards actually means scrapping some important clean air laws already on the books and punching dangerous new loopholes in the Clean Air Act.
   "The Bush plan will actually make the nation's clean air safeguards weaker, and that will mean more health problems, asthma attacks, and premature deaths for Americans," according to Southern Alliance.
   The alliance said a study by EPA's own consultants found that as many as 9,000 Americans have their lives shortened each year due to pollution from power plants that have violated the law.
   "According to an official at EPA, simply enforcing the laws on the books would result in thousands and even millions of tons less pollution each year, than what would be allowed under the Bush plan," Southern Alliance said.
   Bush's 2003 budget proposal would set aside $4.5 billion to address global warming and would provide $4.6 billion over five years to develop clean energy alternatives.
   Tennessee Valley Authority, which has begun offering clean energy through development of windmills, solar power and methane, recently decided not to renew a contract with the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an anti-Clean Air Act lobbying group.
   TVA signed a three-month, $45,000 contract with the lobbying group to help fund "research" efforts.
   Stephen Smith of Southern Alliance said TVA's withdrawal from the lobbying effort does not reflect a change in the agency's policy, but, "It is a move in the right direction. We never believed TVA should use ratepayer money to undermine clean air protections."