Sunday, April 04, 2004

Bush hobbles EPA regulators

Today's Sunday Times article on power plant environmental regulation is unfortunately linked way down the NYTimes home page, under the Science section, with the rather opaque link text "Changing All the Rules". It's unfortunate because it contains some of the most frustrating and devastating indictments of the Bush administration's environmental record yet. Every American ought to read this article.

Reporter Bruce Barcott writes about an obscure EPA regulation called "New Source Review", which requires electricity companies to install the latest pollution-control equipment whenever they upgrade their plants. Choice excerpt:

Of the many environmental changes brought about by the Bush White House, none illustrate the administration's modus operandi better than the overhaul of new-source review. The president has had little success in the past three years at getting his environmental agenda through Congress. His energy bill remains unpassed. His Clear Skies package of clean-air laws is collecting dust on a committee shelf. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains closed to oil and gas exploration.

But while its legislative initiatives have languished on Capitol Hill, the administration has managed to effect a radical transformation of the nation's environmental laws, quietly and subtly, by means of regulatory changes and bureaucratic directives. Overturning new-source review -- the phrase itself embodies the kind of dull, eye-glazing bureaucrat-speak that distracts attention -- represents the most sweeping change, and among the least noticed.

The changes to new-source review have been portrayed by the president and his advisers as a compromise between the twin goals of preserving the environment and enabling business, based on a desire to make environmental regulations more streamlined and effective. But a careful examination of the process that led to the new policy reveals a very different story, and a different motivation. I conducted months of extensive interviews with those involved in the process, including current and former government officials, industry representatives, public health researchers and environmental advocates. (Top environmental officials in the Bush administration declined to comment for this article.) Through those interviews and the review of hundreds of pages of documents and transcripts, one thing has become clear: the administration's real problem with the new-source review program wasn't that it didn't work. The problem was that it was about to work all too well -- in the way, finally, that it was designed to when it was passed by Congress more than 25 years ago.

Having long flouted the new-source review law, many of the nation's biggest power companies were facing, in the last months of the 1990's, an expensive day of reckoning. E.P.A. investigators had caught them breaking the law. To make amends, the power companies were on the verge of signing agreements to clean up their plants, which would have delivered one of the greatest advances in clean air in the nation's history. Then George W. Bush took office, and everything changed.

All this puts the lie to the absurd contention, by Naderites and others, that there was no difference between Bush and Gore, or that there is still no (big) difference between Bush and Kerry. Some point out that many of Bush's legislative initiatives have failed; but that argument is either disingenuous, or willfully ignorant, because the executive branch possesses enormous power that doesn't require Congessional approval to exercise. And the difference between a Bush administration and any Democratic administration likely to take office today is still enormous.

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