Sins of Emisssion

The EPA has become an Environment Polluting Agency.


It’s well known that former Utah governor Michael O. Leavitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is no friend of the environment. So it was only fitting that the Bush administration timed yet another rollback of environmental protections to coincide with Leavitt’s first day on the job.

Leavitt officially started his term as head of the EPA on Thursday, a day after EPA lawyers, on instructions from on high, announced that they would drop 70 investigations into coal-burning power plants that violated pollution laws. The move will benefit the utility industry, possibly saving it tens of billions of dollars’ worth of pollution-control upgrades. The move comes as little surprise: it’s part of a broader, systematic strategy on the part of the Bush administration to weaken the EPA to the point of irrelevance.

Companies already accused of violating pollution laws will be let off the hook. Under the New Source Review program, a provision of the Clean Air Act of 1970, oil refineries, power plants, and industrial boilers were required to install pollution controls when making extensive improvements that increased harmful emissions. While for many years this program was not enforced, in 1999 the EPA actually started making firms accountable for air pollution. Once a plant had been marked with an NOV (notice of violation), its case was traditionally taken to the Justice Department where legal action was taken to either sue the company in violation, or make a settlement. By the end of 2000, two of the nation’s largest power companies had agreed to cut emissions by two-thirds.

Once Bush entered office, most of this progress was reversed. The two firms backed out of their agreements. And modifications by the Bush administration to the New Source Review program, to come into effect next month, will clear as many as 70 pollution violators currently being investigated of any responsibility. The new rules say that as long as a renovation project costs less than 20 percent of the power generated by the units, no pollution controls are necessary. Experts say that this would clear most of the plants currently under investigation of a responsibility to clean up their acts.

Environmentalists are outraged–and several senior Democratic Senators have already called for a review of the decision. Environmentalist John Walke, director of the NRDC’s Clean Air Project says:

“The Bush administration’s clean air rollback, like the smokestack emissions it will permit, really stinks. But it is music to the ears of utility companies, which stand to save hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars from the rule change.”

Proponents justify the changes in terms of cost savings — the EPA and the Justice Department have spent tens of millions of dollars on Clinton-era cases — but they’re also a handy way for the Bush administration to give back to some of their financial backers. The utility industry was one of Bush’s biggest campaign contributors, and exempting them from having to buy expensive pollution control equipment makes for a nice thankyou. The rollback on emissions grew out of a recommendation by Vice President Dick Cheney, who urged a study of pollution enforcement after industry complaints. As Osha Gray Davidson reported in the Sept/Oct 2003 of Mother Jones, Cheney’s influence is (even) more malign than you might think:

“The Cheney task force is behind another of the administration’s pet projects-protecting utilities from having to comply with a law enacted 26 years ago. Some 30,000 Americans die each year because the federal government is unwilling to take meaningful steps to enforce the Clean Air Act’s standards for coal-fired power plants.”

As for the EPA’s new boss, it’s no small irony that Leavitt’s one virtue in the eyes of environmentalists was that he had a hand in a successful air-quality partnership project to clean up the haze over the Grand Canyon. But now it seems that his air pollution record will go the way of his approach to land use and wildlife protection. The Montana Kaimin has this to say about his environmental record:

“[T]hese feats aren’t enough to compensate for his slips: his hand in pushing to reopen Utah’s public lands to development, his support of a multimillion-dollar Legacy Highway which would cut through delicate wetlands bordering the Great Salt Lake and, as a governor, bringing suit against the EPA, calling federal clean-air standards “totally irrational.”

This move is just one more in a series of anti-enviro measures that point to the the Bush administration’s overall goal of making the EPA more industry friendly, no matter the environmental cost. The Bush administration has sought to cut the EPA’s enforcement division by nearly one-fifth, to its lowest level on record. For example, as Mother Jones notes, the the EPA, under Bush, has rendered the Pentagon virtually impervious to environmental fault, a view echoed by the Christian Science Monitor: “Bush appointees at the EPA have sided with the Pentagon in seeking exemption for military facilities from federal laws governing hazardous waste, air quality, and endangered species.”

Recently, the EPA also bowed out of any responsibility for ending global warming, announcing two weeks ago that it did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse emissions, such as carbon dioxide. Environmentalist wonder, if the EPA doesn’t have that authority, then who does?

Because the EPA hasn’t been doing its fair sure to ensure a cleaner atmosphere, several states are taking the initiative. Twelve states, together with several environmental advocacy groups, have filed the petition saying the EPA has a responsibility to enact policies that will reduce emissions. California is one of the 12 states to file the petition. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said:

“The U.S. EPA’s decision that it has no authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and that these emissions technically don’t even count as air pollutants, is wrong, disturbing and dangerous to Californians’ health, environment and economy.”

Increasingly, since the EPA is MIA on enviro-issues, protecting the environment is falling increasingly to the legislature. Sen. John McCain (R) is co-sponsor of a bill to reduce climate changing greenhouse gases, the reasoning being that if the EPA isn’t going to help clean up America’s act, somebody else will have to.

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