Barely a week into the president’s second term, the emboldened Bush team — even whilst juggling plans for a Social Security overhaul and major new expenditures on the Iraq venture — has signaled that it’s bound and determined to pass its Clear Skies Act, the first major amendment to the Clean Air Act since 1990. The administration has kicked off a lobbying blitz in cahoots with GOP leaders in Congress and key industry players to help push the legislation through the Senate in the next few weeks.

Clear skies?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The bill was reintroduced in the Senate on Monday by James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), and hearings were held Wednesday in a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW). A full committee hearing is set for Feb. 2 and a vote to determine whether the bill will move to the Senate floor is scheduled for Feb. 16.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Widely condemned by enviros who say it would weaken existing pollution-reduction targets, Clear Skies was first introduced in Congress in 2002 but hasn’t gone anywhere in the intervening years. Now that the 109th Congress has a strengthened GOP majority, Bush has new hope that his industry-backed initiative will be voted into law.

“The president said he will throw himself and the full weight of the White House behind this effort,” said lobbyist Frank Maisano, who represents power-generating companies. “Jim Connaughton [head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality] has made this his top priority. Clearly the administration is very confident that this effort is worth their political capital.”

Industry is also gung ho over Clear Skies. “Energy lobbyists are coming and going like a revolving door through the staff offices of EPW,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “The biggest polluters out there — Southern Company, Edison Electric [Institute], American Electric Power, National Association of Manufacturers, you name it — are chomping at the bit to make this a go.”

It’s hard to imagine why industry is so keen on this bill if you glance at its purported environmental aims: It would, for the first time, impose a cap on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, starting in 2010, and would phase in tighter caps on sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain) and nitrogen oxides (which cause smog) for all fossil-fuel-driven power plants by the end of the decade. By 2018, it would set caps requiring about a 70 percent reduction in these three pollutants, preventing the premature deaths of up to 14,000 Americans by 2020, by U.S. EPA estimates.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Clear Skies would also be the first large-scale effort to implement a market-based cap-and-trade program for NOX and mercury (a successful trading program for SO2 was implemented during the ’90s). The cap-and-trade strategy allows companies that fail to meet the pollution requirements to buy the right to pollute from companies that exceed them. This market-based style of regulation is seen by industry lobbyists as well as some environmentalists as the next wave of environmental policy making.

“If members of Congress are going to stand in the way of a 70 percent reduction of three major pollutants, and if they are going to defy the most efficient and effective market-based policy mechanisms on the horizon, they’re probably crazy,” Maisano told Muckraker.

Who’s Calling Who Crazy?

But environmental and public-health groups counter that Clear Skies is filled with loopholes that could undermine critical existing protections under the Clean Air Act. “The Clear Skies bill is like a computer worm that is trying to invade the Clean Air Act and sabotage it by messing up its inner workings,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, who testified at Wednesday’s EPW subcommittee hearings. “Every goal the bill outlines is one step forward and three steps back.”

According to John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the goals and targets in Clear Skies are weaker than the health protections that exist under present-day law. “The current deadline to clean up the air in highly populated regions is 2010, but the administration’s bill effectively postpones that deadline more than a decade,” he told Muckraker. According to Walke, the 2018 deadline in Clear Skies is misleading — while the cap is set for that date, the program is based on traded credits that will not be fully “cashed in” until about seven years later. “The EPA predicts the act will not fully achieve the 70 percent reductions until sometime after 2025,” he said.

Walke is also concerned that Clear Skies would effectively negate a scientific finding from the Clinton era that designated mercury a toxic pollutant, which legally bound the EPA and the electric-power industry to clean it up far more aggressively than Clear Skies would. (A “toxic” designation typically requires a 90 percent cleanup within three years.) “The Bush bill will allow as much as seven times more mercury pollution, and would achieve its targets well over a decade later than the requirements set in motion by Clinton,” said Walke. And while most environmentalists agree that responsible market-based programs can be a useful regulatory tool for non-toxic emissions such as SO2, NOX, and carbon dioxide, they strongly oppose it as a means to regulate hazardous pollutants such as mercury.

Complaints about Clear Skies don’t stop there: The bill would repeal new-source review standards for existing plants and substantially weaken them for new plants; it would weaken air-quality requirements at national parks; it would significantly delay deadlines for meeting public-health standards; and it would weaken the rights of states to sue neighboring states for cross-border pollution and to create state regulations that are tougher than national ones. Concerns about the latter changes prompted Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and George Pataki (R-N.Y.) to submit a joint letter on Tuesday to senators calling for state-level flexibility to be maintained.

Another problem, as enviros and other critics see it, is the bill’s failure to address heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions — a blatant reversal of Bush’s campaign promise in 2000 to include a cap on CO2 in his multi-pollutant plan. The administration and Republican leaders in Congress don’t seem to see CO2 as a problem at all.

James Inhofe.

“Carbon dioxide certainly will not be part of Clear Skies,” Inhofe told Bloomberg News last week. “It is not a pollutant. Clear Skies deals only with pollutants.” (The same article also quoted him as saying that climate change is “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.”)

This GOP intransigence on global warming could blow the administration’s chances of pushing Clear Skies onto the Senate floor, argue some environmentalists and insiders. At the moment, the vote count on the bill in EPW is expected to come down nine to nine, and the measure can’t move to the full Senate floor unless a majority of committee members vote in its favor. Three nay votes are anticipated from senators who oppose the bill primarily because it fails to address CO2: Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.). (In fact, in 2003 Chafee and Carper proposed their own bill to cap four power-plant pollutants, including CO2.)

Maisano thinks Baucus and Carper might be willing to break ranks with their party and support Clear Skies, and he suggests that the Bush administration might be willing to insert a voluntary CO2 measure into the bill to rally these votes, but it’s not clear whether that would be enough of an incentive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) could also pull a legislative maneuver to force the bill to the floor at Bush’s behest, but that sort of drastic measure seems unlikely.

Complicating matters further is the tri-partisan Clean Power Act introduced on Tuesday by Sens. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), which competes directly with Bush’s plan. Like Clear Skies, the bill is based on market-based trading programs for NOX and SO2, but it also addresses CO2, and its caps and timetables are as stringent as those in existing law. As for mercury, the act requires aggressive caps and doesn’t allow emissions trading.

The Clean Power Act presents a powerful counterpoint to the Clear Skies plan, demonstrating that while market-based solutions can and do work, there’s no need to weaken current pollution targets or neglect the growing climate crisis to implement them.