Clean Air Villain of the Month

March 2002


Promotes Dirty-Air Bill, Undermines Enforcement

(Washington, D.C. March 27, 2002) - The nonprofit Clean Air Trust today named top U.S. EPA air regulator Jeffrey Holmstead the "clean air villain of the month" for March 2002.

Clean Air Trust Executive Director noted it was "extraordinary" for the Trust to single out Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation.

"We are extremely reluctant to make this choice, because Holmstead is the federal government's top politically appointed official charged with regulating air pollution," said O'Donnell. "But we are hard pressed to find anyone else -- either inside or outside of government -- who appears to be working so hard against pollution cleanup.

"Indeed, when Holmstead recently announced publicly that the President would veto any Clean Air Act amendments unless they gutted the key enforcement program of the law -- new source review -- his designation as 'villain' became not only obvious, but essential," O'Donnell added.

"Now that a federal appeals court has upheld EPA's national clean air standards for smog and soot, it's time for EPA officials like Holmstead to enforce the law rather than spend their time trying to weaken or repeal it."

O'Donnell noted that even as Holmstead has tried to woo environmentalists by meeting with them privately, he has led efforts to re-write rules that would allow polluters to pollute more; he has tried to stampede Congress into repealing key enforcement provisions of the Clean Air Act; and he has undermined enforcement of the law by clashing with an EPA regional official who sought to clean up one of the biggest polluters of national parklands in the West.

These issues are worth examining:

  • Weakening new source review. Since taking office last year, one of Holmstead's top priorities has been changing EPA's new source review program, which is designed to prevent refineries, electric power plants, and other factories from increasing pollution when they undergo major modification. Perhaps it's no shock that Holmstead would try to weaken the rules: after all, his former boss and political mentor, former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, has lobbied to get his clients, Southern Company, and other major electric power companies, off the hook for alleged violations of new source review. Still, Holmstead has clashed with career EPA officers as he has tried to rewrite the rules. Last week, our friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council released internal EPA documents showing that EPA's enforcement officers and the agency's legal experts have opposed the changes on the grounds that they are both illegal and will lead to more pollution. In some media accounts, this clash has been portrayed simply as EPA fighting with the pro-industry Department of Energy. In fact, the main clash has been EPA career civil servants fighting efforts by Holmstead to weaken the rules.

    The pity here is that EPA Administrator Christie Whitman apparently has decided to ignore the warnings of the civil servants and side with the politically appointed Holmstead. No wonder editorial writers like those at the Boston Globe have begun to ask if she should resign.

  • Weakening the Clean Air Act. Holmstead has become the chief cheerleader for the Bush Administration's "clear skies" initiative (which some on Capitol Hill have branded the "clear lies" initiative). That plan would entail scuttling existing safeguards in the Clean Air Act for electric power plant pollution, and substituting a so-called "cap and trade" plan, that would set overall national tonnage limits for several power plant pollutants. Under this plan, power companies would be given the right to pollute -- to buy and sell emission "credits" -- as long as the overall national tonnage remained beneath a politically chosen ceiling.

    This plan has numerous problems, not the least of which is that if you repealed current safeguards, there would be nothing to prevent continued -- or even increased -- pollution that threatens the health of local communities.

    But that's not all. Last fall, Holmstead urged major electric power companies to back his "cap and trade" plan because it would be less onerous for them -- and enable them to pollute more -- than would enforcement of the current Clean Air Act.1 Polluters like Southern Company liked the idea of getting out from under the current Clean Air Act, but they responded by convincing the White House to support an even weaker "cap and trade" plan than the one Holmstead had been shopping.

    Undaunted, Holmstead now publicly says the opposite of what he told the power companies: he now claims that the "cap and trade" plan would mean cleaner air than current law. He deliberately ignores the massive emission reductions that would take place if EPA aggressively enforced new source review, and to date has stonewalled Senator Jim Jeffords' (I-VT) request for internal EPA documents on these issues. Holmstead has even made the startling threat that President Bush would veto future "multi-pollutant" legislation unless Congress repealed new source review.

    (In doing so, he has dramatized how coal-fired electric utilities and sympathizers like Holmstead have literally turned the debate on "multi-pollutant" legislation on its head -- and to their advantage: Initially, the legislation was devised by environmentalists as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electric power companies, without harming the existing Clean Air Act. Then, some power companies proposed a tradeoff: some reduction or leveling off of carbon dioxide emissions in return for a relaxation, repeal of or "safe harbor" from new source review. Now, Holmstead has brought the wheel full circle: demanding repeal of existing Clean Air Act protections, and no reduction in carbon emissions.)

  • Undermining enforcement. The Los Angeles Times reported March 25 that Holmstead clashed with EPA's Western regional administrator regarding emissions from one of the biggest polluters in the Southwest -- Tucson Electric Power Company's Springerville, Arizona power plant. The plant's emissions "spread haze across some of America's most majestic scenery, from the Gila Mountain Wilderness to Petrified Forest National Park," according to the Times. The company wanted to add two new generators while keeping total emissions the same. A local environmental group, the Grand Canyon Trust, filed suit, alleging the plant was operating illegally and attempting to avoid installation of modern emission controls.

    Holmstead, according to the Times, argued that EPA should permit the expansion without requiring modern pollution controls. He was "tenacious and adamant," according to one EPA source. Holmstead was opposed by EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri, who insisted that the plant significantly reduce its pollution. Ultimately Nastri and the company hammered out a deal that will lead to a significant reduction in pollution.

    No thanks to Holmstead, who appears so intent in trying to undermine the current Clean Air Act that he's willing to permit a company like Tucson Electric to get away with the clean-air equivalent of murder.

Perhaps it's time for a congressional investigation of these activities.

1 Others -- including whistleblower Eric Schaeffer, who recently resigned from EPA over its lack of enforcement -- have come to the conclusion that enforcing the existing Clean Air Act would mean cleaner air more quickly than would the so-called "clear skies" initiative. So did the Energy Information Administration, according to a report by Cox reporter Jeff Nesmith published in the March 26, 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.