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Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Senate panel hangs dark cloud over Bush's "Clear Skies" plan

President Bush's bid to rewrite the nation's air-pollution laws ground to a halt yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections that the bill would weaken central pillars of environmental protection.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Bush's bid to rewrite the nation's air-pollution laws ground to a halt in a Senate committee yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections that the bill would weaken central pillars of environmental protection.

The setback in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee dealt a body blow to the administration's self-coined "Clear Skies" plan — which would give power plants, factories and refineries more time to reduce their air pollution. Environmental groups, which viewed the bill as a rollback of safeguards at the behest of industry interests, were ecstatic.

The Environmental Protection Agency will issue new rules today and next week to control the same pollutants targeted by the Bush initiative, but these rules will not change provisions in the 1990 Clean Air Act that would have been revised by "Clear Skies."

Senate Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing effective and common-sense legislation because they did not want to give Bush an important environmental victory.

Democrats, joined by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said negotiations had been conducted in bad faith, that the initiative's pollution-control targets were too low, and that certain loopholes were irresponsible.

"It's a shame that the U.S. Congress is the last bastion of denial on climate change," Chafee said.

Clean-air proposals


A comparison of major provisions of President Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal and two other plans, one from Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and the other from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

CARBON DIOXIDE

Bush plan: No limit on emissions.

Jeffords plan: 2.05 billion-ton cap by 2009.

Carper plan: Power-plant emissions capped at 2006 level for 2009-2012, capped at 2001 level by 2013 and beyond.

MERCURY

Bush plan: 34 tons by 2010 (trading allowed), 15 tons by 2018. Sources could avoid reductions through emission credit trades.

Jeffords plan: 5 tons by 2009, each plant limited to 2.48 grams of mercury per 1,000 megawatt hours, or less as determined by EPA.

Carper plan: 24 tons by 2009, 10 tons by 2013, each unit must cut emissions to 50 percent of the mercury in delivered coal by 2008 and 70 percent of mercury in coal by 2013, or meet an alternative output emission rate. Limited mercury-emission trading and banking allowed.

SULFUR DIOXIDE

Bush plan: 4.5 million tons by 2010, 3 million tons by 2018.

Jeffords plan: 2.255 million tons by 2009.

Carper plan: 4.5 million tons by 2009, 3.5 million tons by 2013, 2.25 million tons by 2016.

NITROGEN OXIDES

Bush plan: 2.1 million tons by 2008, 1.7 million tons by 2018.

Jeffords plan: 1.51 million tons by 2009.

Carper plan: 1.87 million tons by 2009, 1.7 million tons by 2013.

Gannett News Service

While neither side said the bill was doomed after the 9-9 vote, future negotiations appeared to be jeopardized by mistrust and radical differences of opinion.

"This bill has been killed by the environmental extremists who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making a political statement about carbon dioxide than they do about reducing air pollution," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman.

Jeffords retorted: "This legislation denies plain scientific evidence of human-health damage from toxic air pollution and of global warming from greenhouse-gas emissions."

The committee vote doesn't preclude GOP leaders from scheduling the bill for floor action anyway, but they would have fewer parliamentary tactics available to overcome Democratic objections.

A central disagreement was whether the bill, originally aimed at reducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury pollution, also should address global warming and carbon-dioxide emissions. The issue cost the Republican majority Chafee's crucial vote, said Sen George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

"Chafee thinks this is the biggest problem facing the world, and the chairman (Inhofe) has a sign in his office saying this is a hoax," Voinovich said as he threw up his hands.

With other Senate business piling up, additional analysis demanded by Democrats likely to take several months to assemble and election-year constraints looming in 2006, Voinovich and Inhofe indicated that the odds were long that "Clear Skies" would return to the agenda soon.

"There is a limited window here," Voinovich said.

In a speech in Ohio yesterday, Bush reiterated his support for the bill, saying the EPA rules were a poor substitute for effective legislation.

Democrats said they would continue to press for changes to "Clear Skies," and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., suggested that an eventual compromise might come about with less-restrictive controls on carbon. One possibility would involve setting voluntary caps on carbon emissions that would harden into a mandatory cap if industry failed to achieve the voluntary targets, he said.

In a briefing last month, James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said flatly: "What will never fly is a mandatory cap on carbon."

Connaughton and several Republicans said that overly ambitious measures would increase the price of power, hitting the elderly hard, and would cause polluting industries to simply leave U.S. shores for countries with less demanding standards. Voinovich and Inhofe cited support from some unions and seniors' organizations, along with the vast majority of industry groups.

Democrats marshaled opposition from environmental groups, the attorneys general of 14 states and two bipartisan groups of local environmental officials: the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. William Becker, a spokesman for those organizations, said Inhofe unfairly had targeted the groups for a financial inquiry after they announced their opposition.

Critics of the "Clear Skies" plan said it weakened provisions in existing law that call for companies to install emissions controls in old power plants when those facilities are being upgraded, that allow states to go after cross-border pollution from power plants in neighboring states, and that call for certain specific protections for national parks.

EPA is scheduled to issue a rule next week to control mercury pollution — a controversial measure likely to be taken to court by environmental groups. Advocates are more positive about a second EPA rule, called the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which will be announced today to control sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. While they say it doesn't go far enough fast enough, environmentalists said the CAIR rule was superior to Bush's legislative initiative.

"Clear Skies was a half step forward and two steps backward," said Conrad Schneider, a spokesman for the environmental coalition, Clear the Air. "The CAIR rule is just a half step forward."

Chafee's comment and the prospects for floor action were reported by The Associated Press.

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