Clean Air Villain of the Month

October 2002


Introduces "Trojan Horse" Bill
that Would Weaken Clean Air Act

(Washington, D.C.) - The nonprofit Clean Air Trust today named Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) the "

Clean Air Villain of the Month

" for October 2002.

Senator Carper earned this dubious distinction by introducing a "Trojan Horse bill that would weaken the Clean Air Act in the guise of strengthening it," explained , the Trust's executive director. He noted that the Carper bill would eliminate key public health protections in an apparent tradeoff for "a global warming figleaf" -- a plan that would actually be less effective than current law regarding greenhouse gases.

"We are extremely reluctant to give Senator Carper this award, because we believe he actually means well," said O'Donnell. "But his misguided legislation would undermine the Clean Air Act and do nothing but encourage the Bush Administration to continue its efforts to gut the law." O'Donnell added that the Trust "hopes that Senator Carper will reconsider those elements of his legislation that would repeal current public health protections in the law."

The Trust also expressed shock that some public interest groups appeared, hypocritically, ready to praise the Carper initiative (S. 3135) since these same groups have denounced similar proposals when offered by the Bush Administration. The Trust remains consistent to its principles of seeking to maintain a strong and effectively enforced Clean Air Act.

In essence, Senator Carper seeks to stake out a middle ground between the positions of Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) and the Bush Administration. Jeffords supports legislation that would strengthen the Clean Air Act by requiring all big coal-fired electric power plants to use modern pollution controls and, for the first time, to require electric power companies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The Bush Administration seeks to replace current health protections of the law with an Enron-style plan under which power companies would be given the right to pollute and could buy and sell those rights to each other. The Bush plan would not call for reductions in greenhouse gases and in fact would probably cause them to increase. As we note further below, the Carper plan is not only bad policy but probably bad politics.

Carper -- although he previously voted with Senator Jeffords -- now has backed away from his progressive position. Here are a few key elements of the Carper bill along with our evaluation of them:

  • New Source Review -- For all practical purposes, the Carper bill would eliminate new source review for electric power plants that undergo major upgrades or life extensions. In other words, it would gut the key aspect of current law that protects not only polluted communities but national parks and other clean-air areas as well. It would also weaken standards for new electric power plants. As George Wallace once put it so graphically, "there ain't a dime's worth of difference" between his plan and the Bush Administration proposal that has been so roundly condemned by environmental groups and leading Democrats.
  • Global Warming -- The plan would freeze aggregate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants at 2001 levels by 2012, but it would allow the power companies to satisfy this requirement by planting trees or doing other things that won't affect their operations. As for whether the 2001 level is adequate for stabilizing the climate, our friends who track this issue more closely than we would probably note that icebergs are already cracking. EPA analyses repeatedly have shown that vigorous enforcement of the current Clean Air Act would mean less coal burning in the future -- and thus fewer greenhouse gases than allowed by the Carper plan.
  • Sulfur Dioxide -- In the most positive part of the bill, it would call for significant reductions in sulfur dioxide nationally from current levels by 2015. It's hard to be too critical of this provision except to say there is no evidence that it's any better than the current Clean Air Act. And, because of the gutting of new source review, reductions in pollution would not be directly related to health needs of local communities.
  • Nitrogen Oxides -- The bill seeks to reduce smog-forming NOx to the same levels sought by the Bush Administration, but on a quicker timetable. Again, there is little to suggest this is better than current law. As in the case of sulfur dioxide, emission reductions would not be linked directly to achievement of health-based clean air standards.
  • Mercury -- It would leave ultimate levels of mercury reduction up to the EPA. It's hard to fathom how this would be an improvement over current law, which also requires EPA to mandate mercury reductions but on a quicker timetable. Like the Bush plan, Carper would also allow power companies to "trade" mercury emissions.

It is not surprising that the bill is being co-sponsored by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), who has long sought to kill new source review. You may recall Senator Breaux was once our "villain of the month" (April 2001) for asking Vice President Cheney to kill enforcement actions against companies accused of violating new source review. (Senator Breaux presumably has no trouble with the weak global warming provisions of the bill, since they are similar to those endorsed by his home-state power company, Entergy.)

It is more surprising that the bill has been co-sponsored by Senators Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and Max Baucus (D-MT). Senator Chafee showed courage earlier in breaking ranks with Senate Republicans and endorsing the Jeffords bill. It is regrettable that he apparently feels he has to backtrack now.

Senator Baucus is even more of a mystery. Even though he voted against the Jeffords bill in a key committee vote, he spoke out vigorously several months ago against any plan to weaken new source review. We suspect he may be the victim of bad staff work or at least an extremely poor memory.

A final thought on the politics of this bill: if Senator Carper thinks this is the official "middle ground," he may want to think again. With the exception of Senator Chafee, no Republicans agreed to co-sponsor the bill, despite what has been described as an aggressive lobbying effort to secure them. We are reliably informed that both the Bush Administration and major coal-burning companies such as American Electric Power and Cinergy are adamantly opposed to this bill as well. This bill could very well be weakened further if Senator Carper tries to proceed.

As we have learned with this year's congressional energy legislation, attempts to cut deals generally end up as bad deals for the environment -- and are better left to the congressional graveyard.