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Update on Clean Air Issues (9-16-02)

Under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is authorized to set rules in order to strengthen air quality standards, rules that have usually been met with enthusiasm by environmental organizations and large resistance by states and industries that bear much of the costs of implementation.  Whenever the EPA announces new proposals, it inevitably generates a large amount of activity and attention from Congress, as members from states with a large stake in clean air (usually states with a large population, like California or the northeastern states) come up in support of new reductions, and members from states with cleaner air or a large industrial presence  (such as midwestern states) rise to fight what they see as unfair costs levied against them to pay for someone else's pollution problem.  The National Council for Science and the Environment provides Congressional Research Service Reports on Clean Air Act issues in the 107th Congress.

Most Recent Action
On September 3, 2002, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Subcommittee on Public Health, chaired by Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), held a hearing on the Bush administration's proposal to reform the Clean Air Act New Source Review (NSR) permit program. The hearing takes place as Senate Democrats, including Sen. Edwards and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), mull over the possibility of blocking the reforms via a rider added to the fiscal year (FY) 2003 EPA budget. Witnesses had conflicting opinions about the affects that the administration's NSR program would have on health and environmental issues. EPA's top air official Jeffrey Holmstead had to defend his support for the proposed reform against former EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Democratic committee members. Holmstead denyed any accusations that the reform would lead to emission increases. Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) were skeptical due to the lack of supporting numbers as well as the lack of information from the agnecy to show any new environment and public health assessments related to the NSR changes. Holmstead predicted that once the reform package is ready, members of Congress would not take any further action. For Browner, her first formal appearance since leaving office in January 2001, this hearing was an opportunity to express her opposition to Bush's approach. She said that the current administration's reforms differ greatly from the proposals made by the Clinton administration. She also was worried that the new proposal would rework the definition of terms such as routine maintenance, repairs and modification, as she argued the changes would "effectively end the [NSR] program and the clean air benefits." (9/16/02)

On July 30th, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing on the effectiveness of the current Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ), conformity, and the role of new technologies in improving air quality. The first panel consisted of Mary Peters, Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and Jeffrey Holmstead, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both witnesses highlighted the successes and progress experienced in air quality improvements to date. They also both viewed CMAQ as a program with potential but in need of changes. Four of the five witnesses in the second panel considered CMAQ to be a valuable program that had been of great assistance in their various areas. The program was helpful in creating bus lanes, HOV lanes, and implementing cleaner technologies. One word of caution that was offered by a couple of the panelists was to make sure that the CMAQ money is being spent thoughtfully and that measurable results are sought out. (8/7/02)

On July 16th, a joint committee hearing was held to discuss the administration's plans for the New Source Review (NSR). The NSR program is part of the Clean Air Act, which, according to an EPA report, requires sources to "install modern pollution control equipment when it is built (for new sources) or when it makes a major modification that increases emissions significantly (for existing sources)." Eleven witnesses, including Jeffrey Holmstead of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Thomas Sansonetti of the Department of Justice, and Attornies General from Vermont, New York, and Alabama testified at this lengthy hearing. The majority of senators and witnesses present recognized that the current NSR leaves room for improvement. Many, however, also expressed concern that the proposed NSR changes undermine the Clean Sir Act as they expect a significant amount of air pollution to slip through with the loopholes created in the reformed NSR, which caters to industry requests for flexibility. An emissions increase, which would have significant public health and environmental consequences, is expected to be associated with the NSR reforms. Proponents of the NSR reforms detailed the confusion that has plagued the program as well as ways through which the NSR prevents industries from being able to upgrade their facilities and its detrimental effects on their ability to produce energy efficiently. Opponents believed that these concerns were false and that industry is attempting to avoid its responsibilities. (7/30/02)

By a one-vote margin, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed legislation on June 27th that revises the Clean Air Act by setting mandatory emission caps for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide. The bill, dubbed the Clean Power Act (S. 556), caps emission levels for these four pollutants by 2008 but is controversial due to its mandatory cuts in CO2 emissions. Republicans, led by Ranking Member Senator Robert Smith (R-NH), opposed the bill because of the inclusion of CO2, but signaled their willingness to proceed with a non-CO2 three-pollutant bill that would have a higher chance of getting through a full vote in the Senate than the current proposal. Before the final vote, Smith floated the idea of introducing an amendment to bring the Jefford bill in line with President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, which regulates the three less-controversial pollutants. Smith chose not to push the amendment, however, when it was clear that he did not have sufficient votes to pass it. Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), who voted against the measure, argued that the legislation adds unneeded complexity on top of existing laws and is too open to costly litigation. The legislation, as passed on by the committee, in effect requires a transition from coal to cleaner burning natural gas -- an idea that raised fears of economic damage and higher energy prices with opponents of the bill. Also included in the final legislation was an amendment by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) that furthers acid rain research initiated under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Even supporters of the bill seemed concerned about its ultimate future but were still resolute to try the bill in the full Senate where it has the support of Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). (7/11/02)

On June 13th, the Bush Administration announced its anticipated changes to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR) program for controlling new industrial and utility sources of air pollution.  The new NSR increases the ease with which older generating plants can upgrade and expand, the idea being that the current NSR procedures have acted to discourage companies from doing even routine maintenance because of the processes they had to go through in order to do so.  Environmentalists have voiced disapproval of the changes to the NSR, pointing out that it may undercut enforcement actions currently waiting in the court system that the EPA has taken against certain companies.  They are also uneasy about increasing industry autonomy, allowing industry to make structural changes without checking the environmental impact. (6/14/02)

On June 12th, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held its third hearing on the costs and benefits of multi-pollutant legislation to amend the Clean Air Act.  Two proposals are currently being discussed -- the Bush Administration's Clear Skies Initiative and Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-VT) S. 556.  Both pieces of legislation call for reducing SO2, NOx, and mercury emissions.  Unlike the president's proposal, S. 556 also calls for the reduction of CO2 emissions but they vary in the degree to which the reductions are mandatory and in the magnitude of reductions.  Although there is bipartisan agreement for reductions in the gases covered in both bills, widespread disagreement still exists over the issue of CO2 reductions.  Opponents of S. 556 express concern that reducing CO2 emissions will adversely impact the economy and raise the question if this is the appropriate time to take this action.  Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) expressed concern that the legislation would cause power plants to switch from coal to natural gas, resulting in massive job losses, economic damage, and price increases for electricity and natural gas.  At a previous hearing regarding this issue, committee members also argued that S. 556 does not recognize important regional differences and would unfairly penalize Midwestern and Western states.  Jeffords argues that choosing to not reduce CO2 emissions is setting ourselves up for greater health and environmental risks in the future. (6/14/02)

While debating energy policy on the floor in March, the Senate has also hit on two key clean air issues: the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards and reformulated gasoline (RFG). On March 14th, the Senate rejected a provision from S.517 that would have established new fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, increasing the standard from 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks to 36 mpg fleetwide by 2015.  The Senate did pass an amendment, introduced by Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA), that would exempt all pick-up trucks from CAFE requirements. Reformulated gasoline legislation seems to have more bipartisan support as well as strong industry support from the American Petroleum Institute, Renewable Fuels Association, and National Corn Growers Association, but some environmental organizations question the details.  A provision of the RFG amendment states that renewable fuel producers are waived of any unforeseen public health effects or environmental damage.  Future amendments are expected to surface that exclude this legal waiver to RFG industries.  (4/03/02)

The Bush Administration announced a new climate change program called the Clear Skies Initiative on February 14, 2002.  Last summer, the administration objected to the Kyoto Protocol, calling it  "fatally flawed and unrealistic."  President Bush described the mandatory emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol as  "arbitrary and not based upon science."  Bush noted that the Kyoto Protocol could cause harmful economic effects: "For America, complying with those mandates would have a negative economic impact with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers."  He promised a voluntary climate change alternative to Kyoto to avoid any adverse economic effects.

The Clean Skies Initiative sets targets to voluntarily reduce industry greenhouse gases by 18 percent in the next ten years.  Targets are set to cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 73 percent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 67 percent, and mercury emissions by 69 percent.  The initiative establishes multi-pollutant emission targets by using a cap-and-trade program.  This market-based approach to clean air establishes a maximum industry emission cap.  The electricity generators must comply with a score card of allowance versus tons of pollution they produce. The government regulates the amount of allowances for industry and gradually reduces them.  Coupled with Bush's Clear Skies Initiative, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman introduced the Climate Leaders program, which includes 11 corporations that have volunteered to participate.  Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) responded to the Bush Administration's Clear Skies Initiative by saying, "Breathing the air isn't optional, and therefore reducing the greenhouse gases in it shouldn't be either." Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are currently working on legislation for a mandatory reduction climate change program.  (3/27/02)

Current Congress
On July 14th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held the third of four public meetings in Boston, MA, to collect information and public comments on the agency's 90-day review of its New Source Review (NSR) program.  The hearing was met with criticism from environmentalists, who expressed concerns that the President's national energy plan focuses on speeding the construction of power plants at the expense of air quality.  Industry leaders at the hearing voiced strong concerns that meeting the government's clean air laws may provide a high economic burden in covering higher costs to build and maintain the plants.  Other public meetings took place in Baton Rouge, LA; Cincinnati, OH; and Sacramento, CA. (7/20/01)

In April 2001, the National Research Council released a report entitled Global Air Quality: An Imperative for Long-Term Observational Strategies.  The report assesses the effectiveness and suitability of the current methods of analyzing the chemistry of the atmosphere and its relationship to air quality and climate change.  It aims to place concerns about air quality in a regional and global context, citing rapid population growth, growing urbanization, and changing climatic condition as some of the factors that alter atmospheric conditions on a global scale.  The report concludes that we currently do not have measures in place to effectively monitor atmospheric compositional changes for the medium- and long-term, and advocates a strengthening of observational capabilities.  The two major recommendations it makes are first the maintenance and strengthening of existing measurement programs that monitor global air quality changes, with high priority given to programs that monitor background levels of ozone and particulate matter (PM).  The second recommendation is the establishment of new programs able to provide long-term measurements and vertical profiles of PM and reactive compounds in order to monitor trends and long-range transport of background concentrations.  Finally, the report ends by suggesting that responsibility for carrying out these suggestions should be assigned to a U.S. federal agency research program, and that the U.S. should assume a leadership role in the implementation of such measures that enhance our understanding of global air quality changes. (8/7/01)

Over the summer, one of the hot issues on the Hill has been whether or not to raise Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards as part of the comprehensive energy plan.  Proponents assert that raising the standards would do more for fossil fuel supply issues than opening up more federal land to drilling.  Those against raising the standards feel that the action would hurt the economy and pose risks to consumers.  Some car manufacturers have publicly argued that higher standards would require smaller cars that would in turn sustain more damage and provide less protection in crashes.  CAFE standards also have important implications for clean air issues.  Those in favor of raising the standards argue that they would cut pollution and improve air quality, helping many regions meet the standards set out by the Clean Air Act.  In August 2001, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released their anxiously awaited report on CAFE standards entitled Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards.  The report was charged with evaluating the past history of the standards as well as the effects associated with changing the standards, including impacts on motor vehicle safety, the economy and automotive sector, and consumers.  The report found that CAFE standards could be significantly increased over the next 10 to 15 years.  However, trying to stay out of the politics of the issue, the report left open the safety question, and did not make specific policy recommendations.  (8/16/01)

On March 15th, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman, Jim Jeffords (I-VT), introduced S. 556.  This bill is designed to impose strict standards on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and carbon dioxide.  A companion bill, H.R. 1256, was introduced in the House by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), also requiring big cuts in all four pollutants.  The Bush Administration, however, "strongly opposes" regulating the greenhouse gas CO2 because of the possible effect it could have on the coal industry.  Jeffrey Holmstead, top air official of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), testified that the administration will introduce its own multi-pollutant legislation "relatively soon," which will not include carbon dioxide emissions cuts.  An EPA analysis of the legislation predicted that it would cause raised electricity prices come 2015 by 32 to 50 percent and decrease coal-fired electric generation by 25 to 35 percent, while leaving the U.S. gross domestic product relatively unchanged.  The Energy Information Administration (EIA), however, found that S. 556 would lead to a 0.8 percent reduction (about $100 billion) in the GDP in 2007.  These differences arose because the EPA's modeling took into account the potential opportunities for investment in new emission-control technology, while the EIA's modeling did not. (11/2/01)

Sources: Hearing testimony, Greenwire, Washington Post, Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the EPA website, National Academy Press, White House website, Greenwire, and E&E News.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Summer 2001 AGI/AIPG Intern Caetie Ofiesh; Fall Semester 2001 Intern Catherine Macris; Spring 2002 AAPG/AGI Intern Heather R. Golding; and Summer 2002 AGI/AIPG Interns Sarah Riggen, David Viator, and Evelyn Kim

Last updated September 16, 2002.

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