Clean Air Villain of the Month

May 2002


Interferes in Active Investigations of New Source Review

(Washington, DC, May 8, 2002) - Why would a United States senator interfere with active federal investigations of air pollution violations by coal-burning electric power producers?

That's the question we pose to the "

Clean Air Villain of the Month

" for May 2002 -- Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND). Senator Conrad has joined one of our previous "villains," Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), in circulating a letter to his colleagues seeking to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken clean-air requirements for the electric power industry.

Specifically, the senators' letter asks EPA to change its "new source review" rules to allow electric power producers to "avoid the regulatory uncertainty currently facing the industry." The letter adopts the rhetoric used by lobbyists for electric power companies with close connections to the Republican Party. 1

You may wonder what sort of "regulatory uncertainty" is involved.

In fact, two North Dakota-based electric co-ops, Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Minnkota Power Cooperative, are under active federal investigation for possible violations of new source review. At a minimum, this letter raises a question of the appropriateness of a United States senator appearing to interfere with an ongoing investigation of alleged illegal acts by the co-ops. (Needless to say, a similar question should be raised about Voinovich: the Justice Department has filed lawsuits against several big Ohio power companies, including American Electric Power, First Energy and Cinergy.)

Conrad's involvement appears to have been inspired by these politically active cooperatives. Minnkota represented the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association last fall when Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) convened a "stakeholders' meeting" to examine so-called "multi-pollutant" legislation. As might be expected for a company under active investigation for alleged wrongdoing, Minnkota used the occasion to call for elimination of new source review under a "cap and trade" system.

Basin Electric achieved some notoriety in a recent report that noted it emits more of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide per megawatt than any other electric power producer in the nation. Basin Electric is also spearheading utility industry efforts to weaken upcoming EPA standards for toxic air pollutants, including mercury, from electric power plants. Basin Electric is among those seeking to build new lignite-fired power plants in western North Dakota. In his last election, Conrad was the leading Senate recipient of PAC contributions by Basin Electric

To pave the way for the new energy projects, Basin Electric is lobbying to convince North Dakota to carve out a new loophole that would permit increased pollution that would harm the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. (Despite opposition from EPA and the National Park Service, the state is seeking to change the method of calculating emissions that affect the park. The Basin Electric-backed state plan would permit more pollution. If new source review were eliminated, entities such as Basin Electric would no longer have to account for the impact of their emissions on a national park or wilderness area.)

It is puzzling that Conrad -- who sharply criticized one of his Democratic colleagues for supporting the Bush Administration's tax cuts -- would provide cover for the administration's dirty-air policies.

And there is some irony, of course, that a Democrat like Conrad is doing the bidding of a co-op seeking to sully the only national park named in honor of the ex-President most often cited by Republicans for their environmental pedigree.

1 The language is almost verbatim that used by attorney Scott Segal, who represents such major power companies as Southern Company and First Energy. Segal's colleague, former Montana Gov. Mark Racicot, is chairman of the Republican National Committee. He ceased active lobbying for the power companies only after his dual role as lobbyist and political party chief sparked controversy.