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Clean Air Issues: Clear Skies Initiative/Multi-pollutant Legislation

In recent years Congress has considered a number of bills to amend the Clean Air Act of 1990. They mostly have been aimed at reducing emissions released by power plants and creating comprehensive legislation to reduce the current number of regulations effecting power plants. The various bills differ mainly in which pollutants should be controlled, the amount of reduction in emissions of each pollutant, and the time frame for implementation. Two main categories of legislation have developed: three-pollutant varieties (includes the President's Clear Skies Initiative) that regulate sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury; and four-pollutant varieties that also include carbon dioxide (CO2).

Most Recent Action

On June 23rd, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which reports the amount of toxic emissions from U.S. industry. The agency reports that toxic emissions rose 5 percent from 2001 levels to 4.79 billion pounds in 2002. The data does not include mining industry emissions as metals in waste rock are not subject to TRI. The increase is partially due to the dismantling of a BHP Copper Company smelter in Arizona. Without this project, TRI emission levels would have decreased by 3 percent from 2001 levels.

The years 2002 and 1997 are the only ones for which the TRI has reported increased toxic emission levels. Emissions in 2001 dropped 15.5 percent from 2000. Mercury and lead are among the toxins that showed the most significant increase in 2002. Mercury levels rose 10 percent from 2001, and the EPA attributes the trend to gold mining operations in Nevada. Lead rose 3.2 percent from 2001 levels.

Some environmental groups claim that the EPA underreports toxic emissions by at least 16 percent. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Gelveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention released a report citing data from an analysis conducted by a Texas environmental agency as well as other studies by independent groups. They report identifies ten underreported toxins. Several groups including the EIP have called on the EPA to change rules regarding the regulation and monitoring of industry. The EPA and some industry officials have denied that the pollutants are underreported and cite other studies that show pollutant decreases. (6/25/04)

Previous Action

In February 2003, multi-pollutant legislation was reintroduced in both the Senate and the House. Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) reintroduced the administration's Clear Skies Initiative in both chambers (S. 485; H.R. 999). Even though the bills do not contain language on CO2 emissions, Inhofe acknowledged earlier in the moth that legislation restricting CO2 emissions from power plants would likely pass the Senate this year. While Inhofe does not support these measures, he recognized that the Democrats are likely to have enough votes and the situation is a "political reality." Pushing for tougher emission restrictions that also include CO2, James Jeffords (I-VT) also reintroduced his four-pollutant bill (S. 366). Hearings on the bills are not expected to take place immediately as attention will focus first on completing comprehensive energy legislation. (3/11/03)

On April 9, 2003, Senator Thomas Carper (R-DE) reintroduced his four-pollutant legislation (S. 843). As was the case last year, the hope is that his bill will serve to find the middle ground between Senator James Jeffords' (I-VT) legislation and the Administration's Clear Skies Initiative. Carper's bill proposes regulation of CO2, but the deadlines and required reductions in emissions provide a compromise between those recommended by the other two pieces of legislation. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who the day before held the sessions' first hearing on the Clear Skies Initiative (see AGI's Clean Air Issues Hearings Summaries). (4/11/03)

On July 1, 2003, Greenwire reported on previously unreleased results of an EPA analysis of Senator Thomas Carper's (R-DE) four-pollutant legislation (S. 843). The released analysis said that the bill would reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and mercury faster than the administration's Clear Skies Initiative. The analysis, however, did not reveal that the plan would "only be marginally more expensive" than Clear Skies. The unreleased information from the analysis stated that the emission cuts would raise electric prices by two-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour more than Clear Skies. Over the past month, this issue has been a hot topic of debate because the EPA has stood its ground saying that Clear Skies is the most cost-effective plan to cut emissions. Alternatively, Carper said that if the EPA would release their cost-benefit analysis of S. 843 it would confirm that his bill would produce greater emission cuts with only a small cost increase. (7/16/03)

According to E&E Daily, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to Sen. Tom Carper (R-DE) on July 22, saying that the EPA would conduct additional analysis on his multi-pollutant bill (S. 843). The additional analysis would be similar to the new modeling the EPA completed on the president's Clear Skies Initiative (S. 485). The letter also said that the EPA would not re-model carbon dioxide caps because little has changed since the last analysis was completed. The letter is a result of the recent allegations that the EPA has been giving the Clean Skies Initiative preferential treatment. The decision for extra analysis received an extra incentive when Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) mentioned the lack of analysis on S.843 when he called for the resignation of the EPA's top air pollution official Jeffery Holmstead (Greenwire, 7-16-03). (7/28/03)

In a floor speech on July 14, 2003, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced that he would cosponsor Senator Thomas Carper's (R-DE) Clean Air Planning Act (S. 843). Alexander said that he has examined the numerous multi-pollutant bills and S. 843 is the "best balanced proposal." He said that the administration's "Clear Skies legislation is a good start but it does not go far enough, fast enough in my backyard." Alexander continued saying, "On the other hand, my colleagues, Senators McCain, Lieberman and Jeffords go too far, too fast…." According to E&E Daily, the impact of Alexander's decision is still unknown. Later that week, Senator Majority Leader and fellow Tennessee Republican Bill Frist (R-TN) said that he would "wait until the Environment and Public Works Committee acts on Clean Air Act legislation for power plant emissions before deciding which of the various proposals to support" (E&E Daily). (7/23/03)

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a new version of the "Clear Skies" legislation on November 10, 2003. This bill, S. 1844, would limit mercury emissions to 34 tons annually, as opposed to the 26-ton annual cap in President Bush's original proposal, S. 485. This move follows testimony given earlier this year by the Council of Economic Advisers wherein they expressed concern over new EPA data suggesting the 26-ton cap may be too ambitious. Other changes in the new bill include a requirement that the EPA set aside 7 percent of emissions allowances, which can be sold by cleaner power plants to dirtier ones to comply with stricter emissions requirements. Utilities and other affected industries hailed the new bill because it gives them a realistic timeframe to invest in technologies that should achieve significant mercury reductions by 2018. In a statement Senator Inhofe said, "Any level that is more stringent...would impose an unrealistic burden on businesses and cause fuel switching away from coal to natural gas."

Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), a cosponsor of the bill and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety, which will be the first Senate panel to act on S. 1844, also touted the new bill's pro-business approach. Meanwhile, John Walke, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Greenwire, "This new, deadlier legislation weakens the Clean Air Act, allowing power plants to spew more toxic mercury pollution. If it becomes law, this new proposal would threaten our health, putting pregnant and children at particularly high risk." (11/12/03)

On November 5, 2003, the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards held a hearing on the state of science and technology in the mercury emission debate. Members of the subcommittee agreed that there is "compelling evidence" for the health effects of mercury contamination. The panel heard from academic, government, industry and environmental experts about the ongoing regulatory and legislative efforts to control mercury emissions from the utility industry. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is readying a proposed rule that for the first time will set mercury thresholds for coal- and oil-fired power plants on December 15th. (11/12/03)

The environmental community and the EPA reached a settlement agreement on November 13, 2003, that requires the EPA to propose new standards to control smog-forming nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by September 2004. Greenwire reported that a final NOx rule, expected to affect a range of coal-fired power plants and the oil and gas development industry, must be released in 2005. Earthjustice, on behalf of Environmental Defense, filed the suit in federal appeals court largely because of recent air quality evaluations showing worsening conditions in many national parks and other wilderness areas, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. Last July the environmentalists petitioned the court to put EPA on an "enforceable schedule" to issue these regulations. They argued that the same suit was brought in 1990 and without a deadline, the agency essentially ignored the court's ruling. The settlement filed on Thursday locks in those deadlines. (11/18/03)


The Clean Air Act, which was last amended in 1990, requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six pollutants - nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and lead - considered harmful to the environment and public health. According to the EPA, approximately 90 million Americans live in areas that contain pollutant levels higher than the standards. In order to improve air quality around the country, recent efforts have sought to amend the Clean Air Act by dramatically decreasing emissions for two of the six pollutants (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) and initiating the first mercury power plant emission restrictions. While not disagreeing with the need to reduce pollutant levels, opponents also want to include regulating emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

In July 2002, President Bush proposed his Clear Skies Initiative that would cut power plant emissions by 70% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury, through a cap-and-trade program. Challengers of Clear Skies disagree with the timeline over which the emission cuts are made and that it only advocates voluntary reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

In response to the Clear Skies Initiative, Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) introduced legislation last Congress that proposed stricter regulations for NOx, SO2, and mercury than Clear Skies, and also included regulation of CO2 emissions. Although there was bipartisan agreement for reductions in the gases covered in both bills, widespread disagreement over CO2 dominated the discussions. Jeffords bill was opposed by the administration, electric utilities, and coal industries. They were concerned that regulating CO2 would cause coal power plants to switch from coal to natural gas as a compliance strategy, resulting in job losses, economic damage, and price increase for electricity and gas. Jeffords's bill was narrowly approved by the Public Works Committee, but, it died without reaching the Senate floor.

For additional information see AGI's Update on Clean Air Issues from the 107th Congress, AGI's Update on Mercury Policy, and the Congressional Research Service report provided by the National Library for the Environment.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, E&E News, Greenwire, Thomas website, and hearing testimony.

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern; Deric R. Learman, AGI/AIPG 2003 Summer Intern; Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program Staff; and Bridget Martin, 2004 Summer AGI/AIPG Intern

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on the Clearn Air Act for the 107th Congress.

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

Last updated on June 25, 2004

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