I'd like to thank again Paul Rauber and Co. over at the Sierra Club for allowing me to post pieces from the book, and I apologize for not having Paul's name down as co-author as well.
p.85-88, from Breaking with the Clean Air Consensus:
Bush cast his lot with Cheney and the power industry on February 14, 2002, when he announced his new air pollution plan with the Orwellian title "Clear Skies." Bush promised, "We will cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from current levels. We will cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 67 percent. And, for the first time ever, we will cap emissions of mercury, cutting them by 69 percent."
While those numbers sound impressive, they actually represent a major retreat (the books emphasis) from existing requirements. Bush's numbers ignore cleanups already required and under way; rather, they compare his plan with pollution levels that would exist if every grandfathered power plant and refinery in the country simply ignored the Clean Air Act. Clear Skies eliminates the current requirement that every industrial facility clean up, and postpones standards for meeting public health goals by nearly 25 years. Instead, it proposes a series of national "caps" on how much pollution power plants, overall, can emit. This means that, as long as the national caps are being met, communities near Southern's Bowen and Scherer plants can continue to breathe polluted air for decades, perhaps forever.
Clear Skies also coddles emitters of toxic mercury. Under a current consent decree, mercury emissions from power plants have to be reduced by up to 90 percent by December 2007. Clear Skies, however, does not require any mercury reductions until 2010; even by 2018 there would still be more toxic mercury raining down on our rivers and lakes than current law would allow in 2007. Even that was not enough for Republican Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who tried to raise the "acceptable" levels of mercury pollution in Clear Skies from 26 tons of mercury per year to 34 tons. In January 2003, the implications of the laxness came into much sharper focus, when, after six months of stalling, the EPA reluctantly reported that 8 percent of American women of childbearing age carry potentially toxic levels of mercury in their bodies.
An immediate effect of the Bush plan was the resignation of the EPA's head of regulatory enforcement, Eric Schaeffer. A career EPA official and former staffer to Republican Representative Claudine Schneider, Schaeffer said that he had finally given up fighting "a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce." Schaeffer was particularly alarmed about Clear Skies' effect on the nine lawsuits filed in the last year of the Clinton administration against power companies that had flouted the Clean Air Act. "The companies named in our lawsuits emit an incredible 5 million tons of sulfur dioxide every year," Schaeffer wrote, "a quarter of the emissions in the entire country." The EPA had already negotiated settlements with four power companies, "yet today we seem about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." Previously negotiated settlements were falling apart, he said, and "other companies with whom we were close to settlement walked away from the table. ...We have filed no new lawsuits against the utility companies since this Administration took office. We obviously cannot settle cases with defendants who think we are still rewriting the law."
In July 2003, it was discovered that for months the EPA had been withholding from Congress its own analysis showing that proposals by moderate Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) would be more effective than Clear Skies in reducing pollutants--and only marginally more expensive. A leaked memo obtained by the Washington Post showed that, by 2020, the Carper plan (which was cosponsored by two Republican senators) "would result in 17,800 fewer premature deaths from power-plant air pollution than would Clear Skies. That would save $140 billion a year in health benefits--about $50 billion more than Clear Skies." This information, however, was withheld from Senator Carper. "All we're interested in is having a full and honest debate so we can make a well-informed decision, he later told the Post. "I don't believe that's too much to ask."
A full and honest debate, however, was not what Bush's EPA had in mind. The New York Times described a meeting at which EPA air programs czar Jeffrey Holmstead was briefed by career staff on the merits of the competing pollution reduction plan: "At a meeting on May 2, employees who attend it said, Mr. Holmstead of the E.P.A. wondered aloud, 'How can we justify Clear Skies if this gets out?'" Even the OIRA risk wizards could not help to justify Clear Skies. A major OIRA study showed that the economic benefits of tougher clean air regulations implemented by the Clinton administration were five to seven times greater than the costs, for a net economic gain to American society of at least $100 billion. John Graham released the report with the terse comment, "The data shows that the EPA's clean-air office has issued some highly beneficial rules." Highly beneficial, but apparently not beneficial enough to warrant keeping.
Ultimately, the EPA stopped worrying about justifying Clear Skies and simply eliminated the existing requirements. Instead of making plants modernize whenever they made substantial changes, the agency specified that clean up was required only if 20 percent of the total cost of a plant was spent at one time--a level that is almost never reached in upgrading an old facility. California's legislature promptly rejected application of the new rules to plants within its jurisdiction; eastern states that were victims of pollution from upwind states did not have that option.
A few months later, in November 2003, Schaeffer's nightmare came true: the EPA announced that it was going to drop investigations of 50 power plants for past violations of the Clean Air Act. This meant that the weakened rules were going to be applied retroactively as well, not only increasing pollution in the future but excusing it in the past. The EPA discouraged its staff from discussing this unprecedented decision to grant power plants a retroactive waiver of the law. On the same day the agency abandoned its cases, it also warned employees in the finest terms not to communicate with members of Congress, the press, or the public about this change--using as its excuse the need to preserve secrecy while prosecuting wrongdoers--even though it had decided to abandon the prosecution!
The New York Times reported that "the change grew out of a recommendation by Vice President Dick Cheney's task force... Representatives of the utility industry have been among President Bush's biggest campaign donors, and a change in the enforcement policies has been a top priority of the industry's lobbyists."