Having set this polluter protectionist tone, the amendments then proceed to eliminate one clean air safeguard after another in sweeping rollbacks to not just the Carper-Alexander bill but the current Clean Air Act.

  • The amendments repeal EPA’s authority (and obligation) to protect public health and the environment and safeguard victimized downwind state residents against SO2 and NOx emissions from power plants in upwind states.
  • The amendments bar EPA from lowering power plant SO2 emissions more than the amendments stipulate prior to 2025 and prohibit deeper power plant NOx emissions prior to 2023, no matter how much they might be needed or no matter how cost-effective they are.
  • The amendments eliminate the longstanding right of all states to petition EPA to require greater power plant SO2 and NOx reductions from upwind states that are fouling the air of the downwind state(s).
  • The amendments replace currently required strict standards for toxic air emissions of mercury, arsenic and other metals, acid gases, carcinogenic dioxins, and the other organic air toxics emitted by coal-fired power plants, with a loosely articulated annual standard for mercury alone that allows trading of this brain poison and the creation of “hot spots” surrounding the biggest, oldest emitters. Any regulation of the other air toxics emitted by coal fired power plants is delayed for at least 10 years (with power plants already having escaped toxic standards for two decades), with no legal obligation that they ever be regulated. Oil-fired units receive the same lax treatment for their emissions of carcinogenic nickel, and the same delay (including possible amnesty) for the other air toxics they emit.

Most of these statutory repeals and exemptions also appeared in the Bush administration’s “Clear Skies” legislation.

Favoring dirty coal over cleaner electricity generation. A recurring theme throughout the amendments favors dirty coal-burning power plants over cleaner (but not clean) forms of electricity generation such as natural gas.

The amendments require EPA to use so-called  “fuel adjustment factors” when distributing NOx allowances for the bill’s NOx trading regime, giving out pollution trading allowances in greater amounts to the dirtiest emitters based upon how dirty their fuels are. In clean air policy terms, this stratagem is clearly designed to reward dirty coal plants over cleaner burning natural gas power plants whose historic emissions rates of the smog pre-cursor NOx are far lower than coal plants. Rewarding the worst first and most – and coal is the worst of the emitters – is the best way to understand how the amendments pick winners and losers even within the power sector by favoring the dirtiest coal generators.

By repealing the Clean Air Act programs most responsible for finally cleaning up dirt coal plants, the Voinovich amendments perpetuate the favored grandfathered status of 40 to 70 year-old coal plants that have yet to install modern pollution control equipment. In this respect, too, the amendments favor dirty coal over cleaner burning natural gas plants that have been built within the past thirty years and installed modern pollution control equipment when they were built. These natural gas plants installed pollution controls when the law required it, whereas the sordid history of many coal plants has been to break the laws that would have eliminated their grandfathered status and required them to install modern pollution controls. Thus do the amendments exacerbate a deregulatory competitive advantage that dirty coal plants have enjoyed over natural gas plants for over thirty years.

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The unifying theme of the Voinovich amendments is the sheer audacity and breadth of weakening changes to the Clean Air Act that the amendments contain. It is as if utility industry lobbyists and lawyers were invited to proffer an irresponsible wish list of changes they would like to see made to the Clean Air Act. Indeed, reports are circulating around Washington that representatives for American Electric Power, Duke Energy and First Energy are responsible for much of the amendments.

The Voinovich amendments lay waste to the Carper-Alexander bill, with page after page of redline-strikeouts that don’t amend the bill so much as reconceive a radically different bill embodying the repeals, exemptions and delays demanded by coal plant lobbyists. 

As bad and irresponsible as these amendments are, I am confident that Sens. Carper and Alexander and their colleagues on the Senate Environment Committee will strongly oppose these attacks on clean air and public health. Delaware and other eastern states well represented on that Senate committee lie at the end of the tailpipe that channels smog and soot from Midwestern coal plants to the East Coast. And power plant pollution devastates east Tennessee and Sen. Alexander’s beloved Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Clean air and public health are too important to suffer at the hands of this dirty power grab.